Representative “Averages” Permitted Where Employer Fails To Keep Records of Time Worked Following Tyson

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On March 22, 2016, the Supreme Court affirmed a district court’s class certification decision following the $2.9 million judgment against Tyson Foods. Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146 (U.S. Sup. Ct. March 22, 2016) (slip op. available here) (previously covered on the ILJ here). Tyson had been sued under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) for failing to pay workers at a pork processing plant for time spent donning and doffing protective gear required for their jobs. Following certification as a collective action under 29 U.S.C. §216 and as a class action under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the jury awarded $2.9 million to the class. Tyson appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and lost; Tyson filed a cert petition in the Supreme Court, which was granted.

In the Supreme Court, Tyson argued that the class action judgment should be reversed because the case should not have been certified. It also argued that judgment should be reversed because the plaintiffs identified no distribution mechanism that would not improperly compensate those class members who were not entitled to payment because they did not work more than 40 hours per week. The Supreme Court rejected Tyson’s bid to overturn the certification order and remanded to the district court for a determination of how the proceeds would be disbursed.

The plaintiffs’ problem, which they ultimately overcame, related to off-the-clock nature of the claims: Tyson’s time records did not demonstrate the amount of time necessary to don and doff the protective gear. Slip op. at 5. To prove damages, the Tyson plaintiffs retained Dr. Kenneth Mericle, an industrial relations expert, to conduct an observational study, which included 744 videotaped observations demonstrating that the average donning and doffing time was 18 minutes a day for employees in the cut and retrim department and 21.23 minutes per day for the kill department. A second expert, Dr. Liesl Fox, analyzed time records to identify whether or not the average donning and doffing time would result in more than 40 hours/week and by how much. Dr. Fox’s opinion was that there was $6.7 million in aggregate, uncompensated overtime. Slip op. at 7.

Tyson argued against the plaintiffs’ methods of using average donning and doffing times, since individual employees could have spent less (or more) time, and suggested a categorical rejection of using statistical evidence to approximate damages in such cases. Slip op. at 9. However, the Supreme Court rejected Tyson’s categorical argument, finding that such evidence has been used historically and often provides “the only practicable means to collect and present relevant data.” Id. at 10 (internal citations omitted). Critically, the Supreme Court relied on Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680 (1946), which held that, where an employer does not maintain records of uncompensated time worked, the employee’s “just and reasonable inference” of the time worked would be accepted, with the burden then shifting to the employer to show either the actual time worked or negate the reasonableness of the inference. Slip op. at 11-12. In Tyson, as in Anderson, there were not sufficient records for the employees to rely on to establish the amount of time spent donning and doffing. Thus, “[i]n FLSA actions, inferring the hours an employee has worked from a study such as Mericle’s has been permitted by the Court so long as the study is otherwise admissible [under Fed. Rules Evid. 402 and 702].” Id. at 15.

Tyson also argued that there was no way to apportion damages, especially where the jury ultimately rejected the plaintiffs’ damages estimates, ultimately awarding a number less than half of what Dr. Fox found. Slip op. at 16. Thus, the defendant argued, there was no way to determine which class members the jury was considering when it awarded damages. The Supreme Court ultimately remanded this issue to the district court for a determination of how to separate out of the jury’s aggregate damages the individual award payments to uninjured class members, allowing Tyson to raise the same argument before the district court.

Thus, the Court affirmed, holding that plaintiffs may use statistical evidence to demonstrate class certification under Rule 23 and to prove classwide liability.

Authored by: 
Matthew Theriault, Partner