In Setback for Corporations, Supreme Court Upholds Workers’ Class-Action Verdict

WASHINGTON (Tribune Washington Bureau/TNS) -

The Supreme Court in a setback for corporate America has upheld a nearly $6 million class-action verdict on behalf of a group of Iowa meatpackers who were not paid for the time each week they spent putting on and taking off safety gear.

The justices had agreed to hear the appeal from Tyson Foods, and major business groups were hoping the court would use the case to further crack down on class-action claims brought by employees.

Five years ago, the court tossed out a huge class-action suit alleging gender bias in salaries brought on behalf of 1.5 million women who had 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, the court, speaking through Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, said the Wal-Mart ruling did “not stand for the broad proposition” that workers cannot sue their employers in a class-action claim.

Unlike with Wal-Mart, the Tyson workers were employed at a meat processing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa. “Grueling and dangerous, the work requires employees to wear certain protective gear,” Kennedy said.

Federal law requires employees to be paid overtime wages if they work more than 40 hours a week, but Tyson did not keep track of the time “each employee spent donning and doffing” their protective gear, the court said.

The workers filed a class-action suit alleging they were not paid the required overtime. A jury heard from an industrial relations expert who studied a group of the workers and concluded they spent 18 to 21 minutes each day putting on or taking off their protective gear. The jury ruled in favor of the class of 3,344 workers, and it decided on pay and damages of $5.8 million.

The Supreme Court has been skeptical of class-action claims, and when the justices agreed to hear the appeal from Tyson Foods, many expected another ruling restricting such mass lawsuits.

But in a 6-2 ruling Tuesday, the high court said the class-action claim made sense in this case. “In this case each employee worked in the same facility, did similar work and was paid under the same policy,” Kennedy said.

Lawyers for Tyson questioned the use of the statistical sample from the expert and argued that the individual workers could not prove they had worked overtime. But that was because the company failed to keep careful records, Kennedy said.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan agreed.

In dissent, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the class-action claim should have been tossed out. “Our precedents generally prohibit plaintiffs from maintaining a class action when an important element of liability depends on facts that vary among individual class members,” Thomas said.