Tyson Employees Win At Supreme Court

Mar 22, 2016

Workers at an Iowa slaughterhouse scored a victory for hourly employees at the U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday morning.

Workers from the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Storm Lake were awarded $2.9 million in a 2011 class action lawsuit, in which they alleged Tyson underpaid them for the time it takes to put on and take off protective clothing required to do their jobs.

Tyson appealed the 2011 jury verdict, objecting to the plaintiff’s use of statistical evidence to prove their case. The Supreme Court, however, ruled the class could submit as evidence mathematical calculations of how long it took to put on and later remove safety gear, since Tyson failed to keep accurate working records.

“The meat industry is one where they’ve had a lot of issues in this area,” says Jennifer Zwagerman of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center. “You also see it in the agricultural sector, in terms of some livestock operations. In terms of things like hog barns where it’s shower-in-shower-out facilities.”

Some had wondered if this case would strike a lethal blow to a class's ability to use statistical evidence, especially in light of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling from 2011.

Wal-Mart vs. Dukes found that female Wal-Mart employees could not sue for sex discrimination, since it was impossible to determine if some 1.5 million women employed at 3,400 stores nationwide had all been treated unfairly. That class cited statistical evidence to argue that the retail giant's corporate culture "made it vulnerable to gender bias."

But ultimately, unlike the Wal-Mart case where the group was too broad, the court found that the Tyson workers did have enough in common to argue the statistical evidence was representative of the entire group's experience.

"The study here could have been sufficient to sustain a jury finding as to hours worked if it were introduced in each employee’s individual action," writes Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion. 

While the ruling preserves the right of plaintiffs to use statistical evidence in future class actions, Tyson may still fight to lower the sum of the final settlement. The company argues that some workers were improperly included in the class.

"We are studying the opinion and, in particular, the issue of whether damages can be lawfully allocated to ensure that uninjured class members do not recover from the jury’s lump sum award," Tyson's general counsel David Van Bebber wrote in an email statement.

The case's next likely step is back to the U.S. District Court of Northern Iowa, where a judge will likely determine if the 3,344-member class must be thinned.