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Supreme Court Grants Review in Crucial Class Certification Case

June 17th, 2015 Christopher Davis

On Monday, June 8, the Supreme Court granted review in a case that may significantly impact the standards for class certification. The case, Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, is one of four recent cases in which the Court has been asked to decide whether a class may be certified through the use of statistics when there are individualized differences among class members and when many members have not been injured.

The Tyson case involves employees at a pork-processing plant who claim that Tyson failed to properly compensate them for time spent completing work-related activities such as putting on and removing personal protective equipment and traveling to and from their work stations. Originally, the district court certified the class of hourly workers based on the question of whether the activities were questionable, even though the circumstances faced by individual workers were different, sometimes significantly. At trial, the court allowed plaintiffs to present statistical evidence presuming that all of the class members constituted “average” employees. The jury ruled in favor of the class, and the district court entered a $5.8 million judgment for the plaintiffs.

Under federal law, a court may not certify a damages lawsuit as a class action unless “there are questions of law or fact common to the class” that “predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.” In the appealed case Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, the Supreme Court held that in order to satisfy these requirements, plaintiffs must “demonstrate that the class members ‘have suffered the same injury’” by proving that their claims “depend upon a common contention” that is “capable of classwide resolution…in one stroke.” The Court also explicitly expressed disapproval of “trials by formula,” in which liability is determined for a subset of class members and then applied to the entire class at large.

In the Tyson case, the Supreme Court will decide two questions regarding when a class of plaintiffs may be certified: first, whether differences among individual class members may be ignored when plaintiffs use statistical techniques that presume that all class members are identical; and second, whether a class which contains hundreds of workers who were not injured and have no legal right to damages may be certified.

The Court’s ruling in Tyson will significantly impact both businesses potentially facing class action suits, as well as workers who seek to bring a suit. Despite the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Dukes, which holds that the stringent requirements for class certification should “in practice exclude most claims,” lower courts have often granted plaintiffs more leeway when certifying putative class members. However, the decision in Tyson may reinforce the Court’s demanding standards for obtaining class certification, making it more difficult for plaintiffs to claim the benefits that come with certification and potentially discouraging plaintiffs from filing class action claims in the future.

It is not yet clear when the case will be decided.