Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo

PETITIONER: Tyson Foods, Inc.
RESPONDENT: Peg Bouaphakeo, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, et al.
LOCATION: Tyson Foods, Inc.

DOCKET NO.: 14-1146
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 577 US (2016)
GRANTED: Jun 08, 2015
ARGUED: Nov 10, 2015
DECIDED: Mar 22, 2016

ADVOCATES:
Carter G. Phillips - for the petitioner
David C. Frederick - for the respondents
Elizabeth Prelogar - Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae, for the respondents

Facts of the case

Peg Bouaphakeo and the rest of the plaintiff class are current and former employees of Tyson Foods, Inc. (Tyson) at the company’s meat-processing facility in Storm Lake, Iowa. The employees worked on a “gang-time” system, which means they were paid only for time they were at their working stations and the production line was moving. The employees sued Tyson and argued that the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the Iowa Wage Payment Collection Law by not paying appropriate compensation for the time spent putting on and taking off protective clothing at the beginning and end of the work day and lunch break. The district court certified the class, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded damages of several million dollars.

Tyson appealed and argued that the district court erred in certifying the plaintiff class because factual differences among the plaintiffs made class certification improper. Tyson also argued that the class should be decertified because evidence presented at trial showed that some members of the class were not injured by the company’s actions and therefore had no right to damages. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s certification of the plaintiff class.

Question

May differences among plaintiff class members be ignored for the purpose of class certification when liability and damages will be calculated based on statistical techniques that presume all class members are identical to an average?

May a class action be certified and maintained when the class contains members who were not injured and therefore have no legal right to damages?

Media for Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 10, 2015 in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 22, 2016 in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has our opinion this morning in case 14-1146, Tyson Foods versus Bouaphakeo.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

This is a class-action, a class-action suit that alleges a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Now the Act provides that an employee who works more than 40 hours a week must receive compensation for the extra work and the compensation must be at a rate that is one and a half time the time regular rate time and a half for overtime.

The suit was brought by employees who work at a meat processing plant in Storm Lake, Iowa.

They brought this class-action against the employer Tyson Foods.

Tyson Foods is the petitioner here and the employees are the respondents.

Respondents alleged that their job required them to wear protective gear, special aid brooms, gloves et cetera and that it took time to put that equipment on and take it off.

This is known as so-called donning and doffing time.

Now respondents alleged that petitioner failed to compensate them for the overtime resulting from the donning and doffing of the equipment.

Petitioner, the employer, failed to keep adequate records of how many hours each employee worked as a result the respondents relied at trial on a representative sample conducted by and compiled by an industrial relations expert.

The study by the expert calculated that average amount of time each employee spent donning and doffing protective gear based on observations of just a sample of the employees.

The class-action had as its premise that each class member could be assumed to have worked for the average amount of time found in the expert's study.

Petitioner Tyson Foods objected.

It argued that the variances in donning and doffing time among individual employees made it inappropriate to rely on the study.

Petitioner urged that the work time needed to be calculated person by person and that as a result individual questions predominated over common questions.

That meant, in the petitioner's view, that class certification was improper.

The District Court disagreed.

It certified the class.

A jury awarded almost $3 million in compensatory damages to the respondents.

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.

This Court granted certiorari to resolve two questions; first whether class certification was consistent with Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and second, whether certification was proper given the possibility that certain class members did not work more than 40 hours, and therefore may not have had a legal right to recover.

As to the first issue, the parties did not dispute that there are important issues common to all class members.

Petitioner contends, however, that these common questions are overwhelmed by the need for individual inquiry into the hours worked by each employee.

The Court holds in today's opinion that no such individual inquiry is necessary here because petitioner did not keep records of the employees’ hours.

The only way for each employee to prove that he or she worked more than 40 hours was through a representative sample and even if reasonable might differ as to whether the average time the expert calculated as probative as to the time actually worked by each employee drawing that inference is in general a matter for the jury.

The second question presented whether uninjured class members maybe covered in the class-action is one of significance in this case.

It is not, however, a question yet fairly presented.

The damages award has not been disbursed and respondents alleged there remain ways of distributing the award to only those individuals who have been injured.

On remand when the case returns to the district court for dispersal of the award, petitioner may raise a challenge to the proposed method of allocation.

For these and other reasons set forth in the opinion, the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit is affirmed.