Bouaphakeo v. Tyson: Defendant’s Request for New Trial Denied

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A few months ago, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa (Chief Judge John A. Jarvey, presiding) issued an order denying the defendant’s request for a new trial in Bouaphakeo v. Tyson Foods, Inc. on remand from the United States Supreme Court. No. 5:07-cv-04009-JAJ (Oct. 5, 2016) (slip op. available here). The ILJ has previously covered the Tyson Foods litigation here and here.

On March 22, 2016, the Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s order granting class certification of a claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act for uncompensated time meat processing plant employees spent donning and doffing required protective gear. Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo, 136 S. Ct. 1036 (2016). A jury issued an award for the class after a non-bifurcated trial. The Supreme Court rejected Tyson’s arguments that class certification should be overturned and remanded the matter to the district court to determine how to distribute the award, expressly “noting Tyson ‘may raise a challenge to the proposed method of allocation when the case returns to the District Court.’” Slip op. at 1.

On remand, the plaintiffs argued that the award could be distributed in two ways, both of which would be consistent with the trial court’s jury verdict and with the Supreme Court’s ruling. The first method limited the distribution to the weeks in which each injured class member had worked more than 40 hours without adding any extra minutes for donning and doffing from an expert’s time study, and the second limited distribution to the weeks in which each injured class member had worked more than 40 hours, including weeks in which those extra minutes are added that are consistent with the jury’s verdict (i.e. donning and doffing minutes but excluding any time attributable to meal period-adjacent donning and doffing, as the jury did not allocate damages for that particular time). Tyson objected to the jury verdict and the plaintiffs’ two proposed alternate methods of disbursement, and requested a new trial because the Supreme Court had instructed the trial court to “determine . . . whether there are uninjured class members who are not entitled to recover damages, such that the jury’s verdict cannot stand.” Slip op. at 5. Tyson argued that there are multiple different ways in which the jury could have reached its verdict, and there it is therefore “impossible to ensure only injured plaintiffs participate in the aggregate award.” Id. Tyson further argued that damages and liability are so intertwined in this case that the court should award a new jury trial on both liability and damages. Id. The district court reached three primary conclusions in its order denying Tyson’s request.

First, the court held that the jury’s aggregate award did not, despite Tyson’s arguments, include uninjured individuals. The district court noted that the parties had agreed to certain limitations to ensure that uninjured individuals would not receive any damages. The parties had agreed to exclude from the award those employees who did not work 40 hours in a week without the additional donning and doffing time and also those who, despite having worked 40 hours in a week, were owed less than $50. Slip op. at 6. Further, the jury had been instructed that damages only be awarded as to injured individuals and nonetheless chose to award damages. Id.

Second, the district court held that Tyson invited any uncertainty that may exist. Slip op. at 6. The district court acknowledged that the combined circumstances of a non-bifurcated trial and the use of an aggregate jury award based on dollars rather than time worked “has lessened the precision with which the Court is able to distribute damages. But, as recognized by the Supreme Court, Tyson invited both problems by opposing bifurcation of the original trial and by its failure to keep complete records. Neither the lack of records . . . nor the use of a non-bifurcated trial should be held against Plaintiffs.” Id. at 6-7.

Third, the district court ordered distribution according to one of the methods the plaintiffs’ expert proposed, which limits distribution to weeks during which the injured class member worked more than 40 hours without any extra time attributed for donning and doffing. Slip op. at 7. The court found that this method, along with the requirement that the individual must have earned at least $50 in damages, “resolves any uncertainties in favor of upholding the jury’s verdict.” Id.

Authored by: 
Katherine Kehr, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC