U.S Supreme Court to Hear Case giving Opportunity to Limit Class-Action Suits
WASHINGTON—On Monday The Supreme Court decided to take up a Tyson Foods Inc. appeal that could give the justices another chance to limit class-action lawsuits, this time over the use of statistical methods to determine liability and damages.
Tyson is challenging a $5.8 million judgment given to pork-processing workers at an Iowa plant who alleged the company underpaid them for time spent putting on and taking off protective equipment necessary for their jobs. The lawsuit dates back to 2007.
Tyson argues the workers should not have been allowed to pool their claims into the class-action lawsuit because there were significant differences in the types of tools and equipment the workers used. It says some workers weren’t affected by the company’s alleged pay practices and have no right to damages.
Tyson is challenging a decision in the lower courts that allowed the plaintiffs to use statistical evidence to determine legal liability and monetary damages, based on the average experience of a plant worker. The company argues such an approach isn’t consistent with recent Supreme Court precedent on class actions, including the court’s 2011 ruling that tossed out a class-action lawsuit alleging gender perception by Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Lawyers representing the workers said they need to use a representative sample of the employees’ experiences because Tyson didn’t keep records of the actual time it took workers to don and doff their equipment. There was ample evidence to support the jury’s verdict against Tyson, the lawyers said in a court filing.
Business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed briefs supporting Tyson’s bid for Supreme Court review, seeing the case as a potential vehicle for cutting back on class actions by limiting the use of statistical sampling.
If Tyson wins a broad ruling in the case, it could make it more difficult for plaintiffs to proceed with certain types of class actions where use of statistical data is key to the legal claims.
Other cases have raised similar issues, including a Wal-Mart appeal pending at the Supreme Court challenging a $187 million legal judgment against the retailer for allegedly denying paid rest breaks to employees. The justices could hold that appeal in suspense while they consider the Tyson case.
A Tyson spokesman said the company asked the Supreme Court to get involved because lower courts are divided over the requirements necessary to be part of class-action cases. “We value our employees and strive to treat them fairly,” the company said in a written statement.
Scott Michelman, a lawyer with Public Citizen who is representing the workers, said his side was “confident the Supreme Court will see that the lower courts in this case decided the issues correctly.”
The court will hear the case during its next term, which begins in October and runs through June 2016.