“The Supreme Court dealt a setback to corporate America on Tuesday by upholding a nearly $6-million class-action verdict for a group of Iowa meat packers who contended they were not paid for time spent putting on and taking off safety gear,” reports David Savage in the Los Angeles Times.
The court ruled 6-2 in favor of the workers, saying that “the suit made sense.”
Supreme Court Decision a Setback for Corporations
Recent decisions by the court – for example a case five years ago “alleging gender bias in salaries brought on behalf of 1.5 million women who worked for Wal-Mart” in which the court ruled in favor of Wal-Mart – had led some to believe that the court would look favorably on the claim made by Tyson and corporate groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.
Attorneys for Tyson argued that, since the company did not keep records, “the workers could not prove how much time they spent putting on their protective clothing.” To support their claims, the workers instead relied on an expert study that concluded they “spent on average about 18 minutes a day putting on safety gear.”
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy observed:
A representative or statistical sample, like all evidence, is a means to establish or defend against liability.
Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, as well as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., concurred.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented, Justice Thomas stating:
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.
Ruling Especially Significant for Low-wage Workers
Catherine Ruckelshaus, general counsel and program director for the National Employment Law Project suggested that the “ruling is especially significant for low-wage workers whose employers don’t keep track of their hours and often put the burden of proof on employees.” She continued:
The Supreme Court really clearly said workers, like the workers in this case, can use statistical evidence and representative evidence to determine the classwide liability because Tyson didn’t keep track of the time.
Federal law requires that workers be paid for overtime if they work more than 40 hours per week.