“Following a jury trial, a class of employees recovered $2.9 million in compensatory damages from their employer for a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The employees’ primary grievance was that they did not receive statutorily mandated overtime pay for time spent donning and doffing protective equipment. The employer seeks to reverse the judgment. It makes two arguments. Both relate to whether it was proper to permit the employees to pursue their claims as a class. First, the employer argues the class should not have been certified because the primary method of proving injury assumed each employee spent the same time donning and doffing protective gear, even though differences in the composition of that gear may have meant that, in fact, employees took different amounts of time to don and doff. Second, the employer argues certification was improper because the damages awarded to the class may be distributed to some persons who did not work any uncompensated overtime.”
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the certification and class judgment.
“Since the employees’ claims relate only to overtime, each employee had to show he or she worked more than 40 hours a week, inclusive of time spent donning and doffing, in order to recover. As a result of Tyson’s failure to keep records of donning and doffing time, however, the employees were forced to rely on what the parties describe as “representative evidence.” This evidence included employee testimony, video recordings of donning and doffing at the plant, and, most important, a study performed by an industrial relations expert, Dr. Kenneth Mericle. Mericle conducted 744 videotaped observations and analyzed how long various donning and doffing activities took. He then averaged the time taken in the observations to produce an estimate of 18 minutes a day for the cut and retrim departments and 21.25 minutes for the kill department….
“In many cases, a representative sample is ‘the only practicable means to collect and present relevant data’ establishing a defendant’s liability. In a case where representative evidence is relevant in proving a plaintiff’s individual claim, that evidence cannot be deemed improper merely because the claim is brought on behalf of a class. To so hold would ignore the Rules Enabling Act’s pellucid instruction that use of the class device cannot ‘abridge … any substantive right.’
“One way for respondents to show, then, that the sample relied upon here is a permissible method of proving classwide liability is by showing that each class member could have relied on that sample to establish liability if he or she had brought an individual action. If the sample could have sustained a reasonable jury finding as to hours worked in each employee’s individual action, that sample is a permissible means of establishing the employees’ hours worked in a class action….
“Reliance on Mericle’s study did not deprive petitioner of its ability to litigate individual defenses. Since there were no alternative means for the employees to establish their hours worked, petitioner’s primary defense was to show that Mericle’s study was unrepresentative or inaccurate. That defense is itself common to the claims made by all class members. Respondents’ ‘failure of proof on th[is] common question likely would have ended ‘the litigation and thus [would not have] cause[d] individual questions … to overwhelm questions common to the class.’ When, as here, ‘the concern about the proposed class is not that it exhibits some fatal dissimilarity but, rather, a fatal similarity—[an alleged] failure of proof as to an element of the plaintiffs’ cause of action—courts should engage that question as a matter of summary judgment, not class certification.’
“….Wal–Mart does not stand for the broad proposition that a representative sample is an impermissible means of establishing classwide liability…. The underlying question in Wal–Mart, as here, was whether the sample at issue could have been used to establish liability in an individual action. Since the Court held that the employees were not similarly situated, none of them could have prevailed in an individual suit by relying on depositions detailing the ways in which other employees were discriminated against by their particular store managers. By extension, if the employees had brought 1½million individual suits, there would be little or no role for representative evidence. Permitting the use of that sample in a class action, therefore, would have violated the Rules Enabling Act by giving plaintiffs and defendants different rights in a class proceeding than they could have asserted in an individual action. In contrast, the study here could have been sufficient to sustain a jury finding as to hours worked if it were introduced in each employee’s individual action. While the experiences of the employees in Wal–Mart bore little relationship to one another, in this case each employee worked in the same facility, did similar work, and was paid under the same policy.”
Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo, No.14-1146, 2016 WL 1092414 (March 22, 2016).
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