The last several years, class action cases designed to protect workers have become harder and harder to win. The biggest obstacle for employee class actions has not been the actual erosion of workplace rights but procedural barriers designed to stop employees from joining their claims together. Under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a court can let a class action lawsuit go forward if “there are questions of law or fact common to the class,” and those common questions “predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.”
Basically, if everyone in the class had their rights violated in a similar manner and suffered the same type injury, then a class action is appropriate. Importantly, each employee doesn’t have to have suffered identically, but only in similar ways. For example, if two people were discriminated against for promotions, the exact amount of money they lost doesn’t have to be identical.
Class actions have long been used to save the court system time and money. It is much easier, cheaper and more efficient to resolve several claims in one case, than to do it in a number of separate lawsuits over a number of years. Corporations typically don’t like class action lawsuits because they are efficient and save money for those injured. In many cases, if employees could not bind their claims together in a class action, it would not make financial sense for an employee to bring a lawsuit. For example, if you were denied overtime pay for your job, you may spend more money on a lawsuit to get those wages back than you could ever recover. However, if you joined your claim with other workers, then you and the others can share costs and expenses.
The last several years, courts have been focusing on Rule 23’s “common questions” standard and making it harder to show that each employee is, in fact, similar. In Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), the United States Supreme Court held that, in order to satisfy the common questions requirement, 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 class wide resolution … in one stroke.” The Court also disapproved of “trials by formula,” in which liability is determined for a “sample set” of class members and then “applied to the entire remaining class.” This was a major step back for those trying to protect workers.
The Supreme Court has recently decided to look at another employment class action – Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo. Will the High Court continue to make it harder on workers or will the justices offer some help? That’s the question to be answered by the court. In Tyson, the employees are hourly workers at a pork-processing facility and allege that Tyson failed to pay them fully for time spent donning and doffing protective equipment and walking to and from their work stations. The trial court certified the class even though there were differences in the amount of time that each employee actually spent putting on the safety equipment and walking to his or her work location in the plant.
At trial, the jury returned a verdict for the class, and the district court entered a $5.8 million judgment for the employees. The part of the case that the US Supreme Court has agreed to review is limited to questions about whether the case should have been allowed to go forward as a class. Although no knows how the Court will rule, it is a very important case that could affect millions of workers going forward.
Source: Class Defense Blog, June 8 2015.
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