U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of class actions in Tyson Foods case

Posted on: March 25th, 2016 by Steve Larson
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justiceThe U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other Big Businesses had hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would further undercut class actions in a class action against Tyson Foods being considered by the court.  Contrary to the hopes of Tyson Foods and the various amici that filed briefs in support of Tyson’s position, the Supreme Court on March 22, ruled that it is acceptable for trial courts to allow the use of statistical estimates when establishing liability in multiparty cases against companies.  Tyson Foods had asked the court to limit claims to only those that could prove individual injuries.

The decision was 6-2, and expressly stated that lawyers for corporations had read too much into recent precedents curbing class-action litigation, like Dukes v. Wal-Mart. 

The Tyson Foods case was about a pork-processing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, where employees alleged Tyson had shorted more than 3,000 workers out of overtime pay for time spent putting on and taking off protective equipment at the beginning and end of their shifts.  This is called donning and doffing.

Because Tyson didn’t log employee hours, plaintiffs’ attorneys used statistical experts to estimate the unpaid time. The analysis relied on 744 videotaped observations of workers donning and doffing gear before heading to their assignments. A federal jury sided with workers, and the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld the $5.8 million judgment.

Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said Tyson Food’s suggested approach “would make little sense.” Instead, he wrote, the applicability of statistical samples depends on the specific facts of each case and the reliability of the analysis.  In many cases, he continued, representative evidence is “the only practicable means to collect and present relevant data.”  Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined in the opinion.  Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, dissented.