WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a $2.9 million verdict against Tyson Foods for unpaid overtime and time spent donning and doffing protective equipment.
Peg Bouaphakeo brought the class action here after Tyson changed its policy in 2007 for compensating at its pork-processing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa.
For the nine yeas prior, Tyson had been paying all employees an additional four minutes a day of so-called K-code time - the employer's estimate of how long it took employees to don and doff their gear to slaughter, trim and prepare hogs for shipment.
The 2007 change meant that only certain employees would earn K-time, however, while the rest would collect only "gang-time" wages, meaning the time workers spent are at their stations when the production line was moving.
Though the trial court in Sioux City acknowledged the different kinds of protective gear Tyson's workers wore, it found that the gang-time compensation scheme meant "far more factual similarities than dissimilarities," and it certified two classes.
A collective action the court certified involved 444 employees, and 3,344 members joined the class that did not require filing a written consent form.
The jury ultimately slapped Tyson for $2.9 million, but such damages have not yet been distributed to the class.
Tyson's appeal primarily challenged class certification, but the Eighth Circuit said a sample showing that employees donned and doffed for the same average time comported with the Supreme Court's 1946 precedent in Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co.
The Supreme Court affirmed 6-2 Tuesday, agreeing with the workers that "person-specific inquiries into individual work time" were unnecessary because of
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the ruling is in line with the court's massive class-decertification ruling Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes in 2011.
"While the experiences of the employees in Wal-Mart bore little relationship to one another, in this case each employee worked in the same facility, did similar work, and was paid under the same policy," Kennedy wrote.
Though Tyson also challenged whether the class improperly included members who were not injured and had no legal right to any damages," Kennedy called it premature to determine now whether the class "will be successful in identifying uninjured class members."
"Petitioner may raise a challenge to the proposed method of allocation when the case returns to the District Court for disbursal of the award," the ruling concludes.
Justice Samuel Alito mostly dissented but joined a concurring opinion in which Chief Justice John Roberts voiced "concern that the District Court may not be able to fashion a method for awarding damages only to those class members who suffered an actual injury."
The lead dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas, which Alito joined in full, expands on this, blaming the majority for subjecting "employers to an untenable choice."
"They must either track any time that might be the subject of an innovative lawsuit, or they must defend class actions against representative evidence that unfairly homogenizes an individual issue," the dissent states. "Either way, the majority's misinterpretation of Mt. Clemens will profoundly affect future FLSA-based class actions - which have already increased dramatically in recent years."