October 21, 2015

By Courtney Hamilton

Class action suits—lawsuits where a class of people bound by a common law query are represented by one individual—may prove far harder to litigate if the Supreme Court favors the plaintiff of upcoming case Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo.

The case has reached the Supreme Court after a class of workers sued Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest meat processing plants, for undercompensating them. Previous courts awarded the class of workers nearly $6 million in damages, after the meat processing company failed to compensate workers for time spent donning and doffing protective clothing and equipment as well as time spent walking to work stations. Tyson Foods appealed the verdict, however, arguing that the verdict erroneously aggregates employees with too many differences and therefore liability and damages should be determined on an individual basis.

The case before the Supreme Court now grapples with two main questions: whether individual differences are relevant in certifying a lawsuit class instead of statistical techniques that presume that all class members are identical; and whether, as Tyson Foods asserts, all members of a class action lawsuit have to prove they suffered the same injury for the class to be certified.

Should Tyson Foods prove successful in this case, workers and consumers across the country will suffer greater barriers to filing grievances and seeking justice. The decision affects labor cases, civil rights cases, and consumer rights cases alike. Limiting the reach of class action suits distorts the power balance between workers and their employers even further, as class action suits represent one of the few means of the people holding businesses accountable with significant financial clout. Beyond labor cases, classes of people with civil rights grievances and wronged consumers will similarly find it difficult to go after far better resourced businesses. In a climate that already favors corporations and disenfranchises the people en masse, Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo could prove disastrous.

Two University of Connecticut law professors, Alexandra Lahav and Sachin Pandya, have expressed qualms with Tyson Food’s argument. In an amicus brief—legal documents filed by non-litigants with an investment in the case at hand—Lahav and Pandya advise the court that adopting Tyson Food’s view would “undo the efficiency, fairness, and preclusive effect” of federal class actions and “make it harder for workers to bring Fair Labor Standards Act collective actions,” according to a UConn Today article.

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