Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Tyson Foods over the company’s challenge to a nearly $5.8 million class action judgment awarded workers claiming they were underpaid. In a 6-2 ruling written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court upheld a 2014 appeals court decision in favor of the workers.
According to the Sioux City Journal, workers at a Tyson pork plant in Storm Lake, Iowa sued in 2007, seeking overtime pay and damages because they were not paid for time spent putting on and taking off protective equipment and walking to work stations. A jury in U.S. District Court awarded the workers liquidated damages totaling nearly $5.8 million.
Considering the issue of damages, the U.S. Supreme Court pondered Tyson’s objection to the use of statistics to determine liability and damages. Tyson argued that lower courts should not have allowed statistics to determine damages for the entire class, based on average times observed in a sample of workers from the class. Instead, Tyson contended, damages should have been assessed individually for each plantiff.
Per Fortune magazine, critics in the business community have described such use of statistics as “‘trial by formula’ that violates defendants’ due process rights, instead of assessing each claim individually for the more than 3,000 current and former employees who are suing.” The court’s ruling in this case relied in part on a 1946 Supreme Court precedent allowing plaintiffs to use averages to determine claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Forbes notes that last week’s decision upholds the concept of using statistical evidence to establish class actions in employment cases where companies do not keep adequate time records. Former Justice Antonin Scalia, in the case Wal-Mart v. Dukes, criticized the concept of “trial by formula” in rejecting a sex-discrimination class action on behalf of 1.5 million female employees. Justice Kennedy, however, noted important differences between the Wal-Mart and Tyson cases, and found there was no single corporate policy that Wal-Mart could cite to explain statistical differences in female pay and promotion.
Justice Kennedy’s opinion is available here.