In a Win for Workers, Supreme Court Rules Employees Can Use Statistical Evidence in Class and Collective Actions

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo that employees can use representative statistical evidence to prove their wage-and-hour case in class and collective actions.  This decision makes clear that the Court’s prior decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, an employment-discrimination class-action suit, “does not stand for the broad proposition that a representative sample is an impermissible means of establishing class-wide liability.” 

In Tyson Foods, employees  filed class and collective actions seeking unpaid overtime wages for time spent putting on and taking off (“donning and doffing”) protective gear.  The employees, representing thousands of workers, worked at a pork-processing plant in Iowa for Tyson Foods and were responsible for slaughtering hogs and trimming meat.  To prevent dangerous accidents, the employees had to put on protective gear.  The time it took employees to don and doff the protective gear varied by the gear associated for the different types of jobs (i.e., for slaughtering, trimming, or preparing).  The company did not keep track of this time, and it did not pay its employees for the time.

To pursue their case without accurate time records from the company, the employees relied on representative evidence that included employee testimony, video recordings, and a study performed by an industry expert averaging the time it took to don and doff the protective gear.  The company argued that the employees could not rely on this statistical evidence for a class or collective action because of the varying times it took to don and doff protective gear, which could mean some employees were not entitled to overtime compensation.

The Court disagreed with the company.  Rather, it found that there were common questions of law, unpaid overtime wages, and the employees could use representative statistical evidence to prove their case.  Writing for the Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated, “A representative or statistical sample, like all evidence, is a means to establish or defend against liability.  Its permissibility turns not on the form a proceeding takes—be it a class or individual action—but on the degree to which the evidence is reliable in proving or disproving the elements of the relevant cause of action.”

Tyson Foods represents a significant win for workers in joining together and pursuing claims for unpaid wages.  The decision marks a clear limit on the anti-worker ruling in Dukes and establishes that workers can rely on representative or statistical evidence to prove liability regardless of whether it is a class or individual action. 

For questions regarding wage and hour matters, contact your labor law counsel. 

By Anthony Tucci | April 11, 2016

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