The Supreme Court dealt a setback to corporate America on Tuesday by upholding a nearly $6-million class-action verdict for a group of Iowa meat packers who contended they were not paid for time spent putting on and taking off safety gear.
The high court has been skeptical of class-action claims in recent years, and when the justices agreed to hear the appeal from Tyson Foods, corporate groups — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Assn. of Manufacturers — had hoped the justices would use the case to further rein in class-action claims.
Instead, in a 6-2 ruling, the high court said the class-action claim made sense.
“This is excellent news for workers,” said Adam Klein, deputy managing partner of employment law firm Outten & Golden LLP, which represents employees.
In its appeal, Tyson had argued that the workers could not prove how much time they spent putting on their protective clothing, relying instead on estimates.
Since the company did not keep records, workers used an expert who studied a sample and concluded they spent on average about 18 minutes a day putting on safety gear.
That's good enough, said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. “A representative or statistical sample, like all evidence, is a means to establish or defend against liability,” he said.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan agreed.
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That was the finding five years ago, when the court tossed out a huge class-action suit alleging gender bias in salaries brought on behalf of 1.5 million women who worked for Wal-Mart. The justices said at the time that the women, who worked in stores across the nation, could not point to a common policy that led to lower wages. Statistics alone could not prove discrimination, the court said.
But in Tuesday's decision, Kennedy said the Wal-Mart ruling “does not stand for the broad proposition that a representative sample is an impermissible means of establishing class-wide liability.”
Also, unlike with Wal-Mart, the Tyson workers were employed at the same pork-processing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa.
“In this case each employee worked in the same facility, did similar work and was paid under the same policy,” Kennedy said.
The ruling is especially significant for low-wage workers whose employers don't keep track of their hours and often put the burden of proof on employees, said Catherine Ruckelshaus, general counsel and program director for the National Employment Law Project, which submitted an amicus brief for the case.
“The Supreme Court really clearly said workers, like the workers in this case, can use statistical evidence and representative evidence to determine the classwide liability because Tyson didn't keep track of the time,” she said.
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