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From The New York Times:
by Adam Liptak
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday sided with thousands of workers at an Iowa pork processing plant who had sought to band together in a single lawsuit to recover overtime pay from Tyson Foods.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in the 6-to-2 decision, said the plaintiffs were entitled to rely on statistics to prove their case. The ruling limited the sweep of the court’s 2011 decision in Walmart Stores v. Dukes, which threw out an enormous employment discrimination class-action suit and made it harder for workers, investors and consumers to join together to pursue their claims.
The Tyson workers performed tasks that were “grueling and dangerous” at a plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, Justice Kennedy wrote, slaughtering hogs, trimming the meat and preparing it for shipment. They sought to be paid for the time they had spent putting on and taking off protective gear to prevent knife cuts.
Tyson did not keep records, and the workers tried to prove their damages based on an expert witness’s statistical inferences from hundreds of videotaped observations of how long it took the workers to get ready.
The company objected, saying there was wide variation in how long the extra work took and that some workers were not entitled to overtime at all.
But Justice Kennedy said statistical proof was sufficient.
“A representative or statistical sample, like all evidence, is a means to establish or defend against liability,” he wrote. “Its permissibility turns not on the form a proceeding takes — be it a class or individual action — but on the degree to which the evidence is reliable in proving or disproving the elements of the relevant cause of action.”
The Walmart decision did not help Tyson, Justice Kennedy wrote.
“Walmart does not stand for the broad proposition that a representative sample is an impermissible means of establishing classwide liability,” he said, adding: “While the experiences of the employees in Walmart 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.”
The workers should not suffer because Tyson failed to keep records, Justice Kennedy added, citing a 1946 precedent, Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery. “Where the employer’s records are inaccurate or inadequate and the employee cannot offer convincing substitutes,” the court said in 1946, it is enough for workers to rely on “sufficient evidence to show the amount and extent of that work as a matter of just and reasonable inference.”
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