Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo
Workers at a Tyson Foods meat-processing plant in Iowa sued Tyson for undercompensating them for time spent walking to their worksites and donning and doffing protective equipment necessary to perform their dangerous jobs. The workers’ lawsuit was certified as a class action. The case was tried to a jury using a combination of individual timesheets and expert testimony based on an observational study of the workers’ donning, doffing walking time (using a representative sample of 744 workers). The jury returned a verdict in favor of the class and awarded damages. The court of appeals affirmed. In March 2015, Tyson petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case. Tyson argued that the use of sampling was unfair and that a class cannot be certified if any of its members may not have been injured because then those individuals lack standing. Public Citizen then joined plaintiff’s counsel Robert Wiggins of Birmingham, Alabama, as co-counsel to prepare the brief in opposition defending the judgment in favor of the workers and their right to proceed as a class. After the Supreme Court granted the petition, Public Citizen played a lead role in merits briefing.
In March 2016, in a 6-2 decision, the Court affirmed the decision below in favor of the workers. The Court held that the workers’ reliance on representative proof did not defeat class certification because representative proof is allowed in individual wage-and-hour cases, and it would shrink plaintiffs’ rights to deny them the opportunity to use such evidence when proceeding as a class. In general, if a method of proof is permissible for individuals’ claims, it remains permissible when those individuals band together into a class. The Court declined to reach Tyson’s challenge to standing based on the presence of uninjured class members because Tyson abandoned that argument. The case will now return to the district court for an allocation of the damages award among the individual workers.