STORM LAKE, Iowa | In a blow to business interests, the U.S. Supreme Court sided Tuesday with thousands of current and former employees at the Tyson Foods pork plant in Storm Lake, upholding a $5.8 million award to the hourly workers.
The justices voted 6-2 to reject new limits the meatpacking giant asked them to impose on the ability of workers to band together to challenge pay and workplace issues.
Peg Bouaphakeo and other Tyson Storm Lake workers sued in 2007 in U.S. District Court in Sioux City to collect back pay for the time they spent putting on and taking off protective work clothes and equipment before wielding sharp knives in slaughtering and processing the animals.
A jury in U.S. District Court in Sioux City awarded $5.8 million in overtime and damages for more than 3,000 workers. The lower court decision was upheld by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2014.
Because Tyson did not keep records, the workers tried to prove the damages based on an expert witness' statistical inferences of how long it took the workers to get ready for their jobs on the plant's slaughter or "kill" floor and the processing or "fabrication" floor.Tyson challenged the means by which the class-action status was granted. The questions before the court were whether statistics should have been allowed to determine damages for all employees. Rather than base the damages on the average amount of time it took employees to get ready, the award should have been assessed individually for each plaintiff, Tyson argued.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in favor of the workers, who he noted perform "grueling and dangerous" jobs, explicitly rejected the argument by Tyson and its backers to broadly rule out statistical evidence in these sorts of cases.
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The opinion relied on a 70-year-old Supreme Court decision that allows workers to use statistical evidence in lawsuits over compensation when their employer doesn't keep adequate records of their hours.
Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented. Thomas wrote that the trial court made several mistakes and never should have allowed the lawsuit to proceed. "These errors prejudiced Tyson and warrant reversal," he wrote.
In a statement, Tyson general counsel David Van Bebber said while Tyson is disappointed by the ruling, the company is "heartened by the divided court’s consideration and analysis of serious issues affecting the sufficiency of proof required to maintain a class action under the Fair Labor Standards Act."
"We are studying the opinion and, in particular, the issue of whether damages can be lawfully allocated to ensure that uninjured class members do not recover from the jury’s lump sum award," Van Bebber said in the statement.
Tyson has faced similar litigation around the country, including a case involving its plants in Dakota City and Madison, Nebraska, where the company prevailed on appeal.