Last week the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a donning and doffing class and collective action against Tyson Foods, Inc. (see full transcript of oral argument here) that has the potential to dramatically expand the certification of class and collective wage and hour “off-the-clock” actions.

The Fictional “Average Employee”

One of the primary issues in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146, is whether the plaintiffs’ use of statistical averages in a Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) case was appropriate to certify a federal Rule 23(b)(3) damages class and to prove liability and damages at trial.  The plaintiffs relied on expert testimony to prove that a class of more than 3,000 workers at an Iowa pork processing plant were owed overtime wages for time spent donning and doffing personal protective equipment and walking to and from their workstations.  At trial, the plaintiffs used statistical evidence of the average donning, doffing and walking times for employees, resulting in a jury verdict against Tyson Foods in excess of $5.8 million.  They relied on individual time sheets and average times calculated by their expert from more than 700 videotape observations of employees putting on and taking off protective gear and walking to their workstations.

Relying on the Supreme Court’s recent employer-friendly class action decisions in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011) and Comcast v. Behrend, 133 S.Ct. 1426 (2013), Tyson Foods appealed the verdict to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.  It argued that the plaintiffs’ reliance on statistical evidence improperly “presume[s] that all class members are identical to a fictional ‘average’ employee,” which is contrary to the so-called “trial by formula” prohibition in Dukes and Behrend for determining classwide liability and damage.

A divided (2-1) panel of the Eighth Circuit disagreed with Tyson Foods’ positions.  Based on a split in the circuits, the Supreme Court granted certification on (1) whether differences among individual class members may be ignored and a class action certified under Rule 23(b)(3), or a collective action certified under the FLSA, where liability and damages will be determined with statistical techniques that presume all class members are identical to the average observed in a sample; and (2) whether a class action may be certified or maintained under Rule 23(b)(3), or a collective action certified or maintained under the FLSA, when the class contains hundreds of members who were not injured and have no legal right to any damages.

Will Statistical Modeling Be Permitted to Show Classwide Violations Under the FLSA?

Some of the Justices, including the likely swing-vote, Justice Kennedy, appeared skeptical of Tyson Foods’ argument that the plaintiffs could not rely on statistical averages as the mechanism to demonstrate commonality and typicality among workers when there was evidence Tyson Foods did not keep accurate or adequate time records.  Several Justices cited to the burden-shifting framework in off-the-clock cases established after Anderson v. Mount Clemens Pottery Co., 380 U.S. 680 (1946) (where the employer’s records are inaccurate or inadequate and the employee cannot offer convincing substitutes, the burden shifts to the employer to demonstrate the precise amount of work performed or to refute the inference to be drawn from the employee’s evidence).  In addition, Justice Kennedy suggested that Tyson Foods might have waived arguments by not challenging the plaintiffs’ statistical experts at trial, by objecting to bifurcating the liability and damages phases of the trial, and by not seeking a special jury verdict for determination and apportionment of damages among class members.

On the other side, Justices Alito and Roberts questioned whether the use of averaging is appropriate when the job positions and equipment used by workers were undisputedly different among the workers included in the class, and where it was undisputed that some workers did not perform the activities in question and therefore suffered no injury.  Justice Alito asked, “How can you separate the employees who were injured from the employees who were not injured” or “how much time the employees were entitled to” except in “a very slap-dash fashion?”  The Chief Justice echoed this point, stating “once the jury rejects plaintiffs’ “average statistics, . . . there’s no way to tell whether everybody who’s going to get money was injured or not.”

Takeaways

The Tyson Foods case highlights the difficulties employers continue to face when determining whether their workers’ “preliminary” (time spent before the principal work begins) and “postliminary” activities (time spent after the principal work ends) are compensable in the first place under the FLSA. As Justice Alito asked at oral argument, “What do you think an employer should do about recordkeeping when the employer believes that certain activities need not be counted under the FLSA? . . . Is it supposed to keep two sets of records?”  The answer, according to the DOJ’s attorney, is that “Mt. Clemens . . . make[s] clear that the employer is stuck with its mistake . . . .”

Tyson Foods also shows that despite the Court’s decisions in Dukes and Comcast, which many commentators predicted would be the death knell of employment class actions, courts continue to certify classes where the plaintiffs can muster enough evidence (including statistical “averages” through qualified experts) to overcome the presumption of individualized differences among class members.  Further, while the lack of accurate time records is not an insurmountable obstacle to defeating an employee’s claim that he or she (or a group of workers) did not receive overtime for compensable time worked in excess of 40 hours, it could provide an opening under the Mt. Clemensstandard for employees to take advantage of “relaxed” standards of proof (“just and reasonable inference”) to show wage violations under the FLSA, which ultimately could allow them to avoid early dismissal and get to a jury.