Tyson Foods Loses Bid to Reverse Worker Class Action in U.S. Supreme Court
by Leslie A. Brueckner
And now for some rare but good news on the class action front from the U.S. Supreme Court:
For months now, Supreme Court watchers have been waiting with bated breath to see whether food industry giant Tyson Foods, Inc. would succeed in its bid to reverse a $5.8 million judgment in favor of Iowa meat processing employees who were not paid for their time “donning and doffing” protective equipment.
Well guess what? Tyson Foods lost.
Yesterday, the court rejected Tyson’s challenge and upheld the jury verdict, by a vote of 6-to-2.
So, unless something unexpectedly terrible happens on remand, the pork-processing workers in the case will finally get the justice they deserve.
But the decision’s significance goes well beyond those few hundred workers (although, to be sure, we applaud the result for that reason alone). The ruling also matters, in a big way, because of what the case did not decide.
The case was one of the scariest of this entire term because it had the potential to kill off a huge number of class actions including, in particular, cases on behalf of workers and consumers involving the use of statistical evidence to prove liability and/or damages.
Tyson and its amici (including the ubiquitous U.S. Chamber of Commerce) were using the case as a vehicle to launch yet another broad-scale assault on the class-action device, arguing that the use of statistics to estimate the average amount of overtime worked by Tyson employees deprives Tyson Foods of its right to due process.
The Supreme Court squarely rejected this argument, recognizing that the use of statistics is an entirely proper and time honored way of proving both liability and damages in certain cases. The question, said the Court, is whether the representative evidence would be “relevant in proving a plaintiff’s individual claim.” Where that is so “that evidence cannot be deemed improper merely because the claim is brought on behalf of a class.”
In so ruling, the Court chided Tyson for its reliance on Wal-Mart v. Dukes, 564 U.S. 338 (2011), which the Court labeled “misplaced.” Justice Kennedy wrote that “the instant case” – that is, the Tyson Foods case – is actually “in accord with Wal-Mart.” The key problem in Wal-mart was that, in the Court’s view, the plaintiffs had failed to provided “significant proof” that the company had violated the law, and they tried to use statistical proof to establish liability on a class wide basis.
In this case, in contrast, the statistical evidence relied on by the plaintiffs was sufficient to establish that Tyson Foods had violated the law. As the Court put it, “the study here [introduced by plaintiffs] could have been sufficient to sustain a jury’s finding as to hours worked if it were introduced in each employee’s action.” Because the study could have been introduced as evidence in an individual case, the Court held, there was nothing wrong with using it on a classwide basis.
This decision, therefore, breaks little new ground. It simply confirms what we’ve always known: that statistics have an important role to play in appropriate cases. We made that argument in an amicus brief to the Court, and the Court seems to have gotten the message, loud and clear.
So why do we care? Because class actions make it economically possible for injured consumers, civil rights plaintiffs, and low-wage workers to pursue claims for relatively small damage amounts for wrongs that would otherwise go unremedied. A rule that prohibits the use of statistical evidence to prove class-wide damages could have allowed defendants to avoid certain class actions altogether.
That would have been bad news for everyone who cares about access to justice.