The Supreme Court Sides with Workers in Tyson Foods

Supreme Court homepageThe Supreme Court’s decision last week in Tyson Foods Inc. v. Bouaphakeoi was a win for workers. In a 6-2 decision, the Court held that in class actions, employees could use reliable statistical data to determine the amount owed to the employees as a result of an employer’s wrongdoing. That holding might make this sound pretty technical, but it has big implications for workers and any other individuals trying to challenge corporate wrongdoing.

First, as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, the lower court’s award of compensation to Tyson Foods employees who were victims of wage theft is upheld.

As we highlighted in our preview of cases before the Supreme Court in 2016, Tyson Foods is a case about wage theft. Wage theft occurs when an employer refuses to pay a worker her full earnings for the time she worked—in violation of minimum wage or overtime laws. In this case, Tyson Foods required the plaintiffs to put on special safety equipment when working in particular areas of a meat processing plant. Tyson Foods claimed that it only took workers about four minutes to put on and take off that gear and only paid employees for four minutes. Evidence showed that in reality, it took much longer to put on or take off the gear and employees were not getting paid for that time.

These employees joined together to bring a class action law suit against Tyson Foods for this wage theft and won—the Court held that the workers were entitled to be paid for the additional time they had spent putting on and taking off their gear over and above four minutes. However, Tyson Foods (in violation of the law) had not kept records on the actual time workers had spent putting on and taking off the safety gear. So to calculate the wages each employee was owed, the plaintiffs presented statistical evidence at trial on the average amount of time the task took employees. This average amount was calculated from over 700 observations of employees putting on and taking off the safety gear, and then this average was used in combination with each employee’s time sheets and pay data to calculate what each employee was owed. At the district court, a jury awarded a total of $5.8 million (and the Court of Appeals affirmed) to compensate the employees for the wages they were owed. The Supreme Court decision upholds this award.

Second, the Supreme Court’s decision held that reliable statistical evidence can be used to establish the amount employees are owed in class actions—especially when this evidence is used because an employer failed to keep records required under law.

Tyson Foods challenged the lower court’s award to the employees, specifically the process used to calculate the award. Tyson Foods argued that the individual differences in the time it took to put on and take off the safety gear made both a class action and collective action inappropriate and that each of the individual workers should have brought their own case.

Luckily the Supreme Court disagreed—ruling that this kind of statistical evidence could be used to show that the group had the same legal claim. Writing for the Court, Justice Kennedy explained “A representative or statistical sample, like all evidence, is a means to establish or defend against liability. Its permissibility turns not on the form a proceeding takes—be it a class or individual action—but on the degree to which the evidence is reliable in proving or disproving the elements of the relevant cause of action.”

Here, the use of the statistical evidence was especially appropriate because Tyson Foods didn’t keep records of the precise amount of time each worker spent taking on and off the safety gear (even though they were supposed to). Using a 1946 Supreme Court case as precedent, Justice Kennedy explained that “when employers violate their statutory duty to keep proper records, and employees thereby have no way to establish the time spent doing uncompensated work” then the use of a representative sample “to fill an evidentiary gap created by the employer’s failure to keep adequate records” is permissible.

Third, the Supreme Court’s decision means that workers like the Tyson Foods employees still have a powerful way to join together to challenge employer misconduct—helping to level the playing field somewhat between big corporations and workers.

Without the ability to use this statistical data to support their class action suit, it would be much more difficult for individuals to come together to challenge corporate wrongdoing. It would be prohibitively expensive for each employee to find an attorney to take on Tyson Foods in order to recover back wages that –while critically important to the worker—amount to at most a few thousand dollars in each individual case. That amount is too small to tempt attorneys to spend time and resources to litigate individual workers’ cases. Class actions and collective actions level the playing field by allowing a large group of workers wronged in the same way to sue a corporation (which has a tremendous advantage in finances and resources) together. The Supreme Court’s decision in Tyson Foods helps preserve that balance for workers.