Lawyers for one of the world’s largest meat producers, Tyson Foods, are urging the Supreme Court to take its side in a case that could affect the rights of low-wage workers and, more broadly, people who want to bring class-action lawsuits. Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo is one of four cases currently being argued before the court that concern group litigation — historically, a vehicle used by employees and consumers lacking the resources to press individual claims against large companies.
The Tyson case was originally filed by six immigrant workers in an Iowa chicken-processing factory over alleged unpaid overtime wages for the minutes — and accumulated hours — spent “donning and doffing” protective equipment, such as rubber gloves, an apron, a hairnet and, in some cases, earplugs, a hardhat and plastic, knife-proof belly guard. During the trial, Peg Bouaphakeo and her coworkers offered testimony and statistical estimates to prove just how much money they were owed, in light of the fact that the employer had failed to keep legally required records. This uncompensated time before and after work, the employees claimed, added up to significant “wage theft” for some fraction of a class of over 3,300 low-wage plaintiffs, though any individual’s case would be too small to litigate on its own. The jury awarded the class $5.8 million in unpaid wages.
In its appeal to the Supreme Court, Tyson Foods maintains that the class action was improper, given variations in the time employees need to put on and remove protective gear. Although the company did not precisely document people’s work hours, say Tyson attorneys and business associations who have submitted friend-of-the-court briefs, employees should have to prove their claims one by one, not in a collective “trial by formula.” If the court sides with the corporation, it would expand its 2011 ruling in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, where female employees were found too diverse to proceed in a class action, despite their shared allegation of discrimination based on sex.
Three other cases before the Supreme Court examine the viability of group claims, though in a consumer rights’ context. Spokeo, Inc. v. Robbins asks whether someone who has suffered the violation of a statute but no concrete damage (in this case, for having inaccurate information about him published online), can bring a lawsuit on behalf of similarly situated people — a question with implications for civil rights litigation. Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez considers if a class action should be dismissed when a defendant offers to pay the named, representative plaintiff all the monetary damages he or she seeks (here, for unwanted text messages sent by a military recruiter). And DirecTV, Inc. v. Imburgia concerns a satellite TV contract that limits a customer’s legal recourse to individual arbitration, a private, non-judicial option bolstered by the Supreme Court in recent years.
In each of these consumer cases and Tyson Foods, it’s the corporate defendant that successfully convinced the justices to hear their appeal. (The Supreme Court generally has the choice whether to take or reject a request for review.) But according to attorney Cory Andrews at the non-profit, libertarian Washington Legal Foundation (WLF), which submitted friend-of-the-court briefs in all four of the above cases, the court’s willingness to adjudicate these issues reflects a suspicion of runaway lawsuits, rather than any pro-business agenda.
“Litigation is very, very expensive. … Arbitration is one way to resolve disputes efficiently and economically,” he said. His colleague Richard Samp, chief counsel of WLF, added: “A number of members of the Supreme Court think that the class action device is being abused by plaintiffs’ attorneys as a way of generating fees for themselves, without necessarily keeping in mind the interest of individual plaintiffs.”