The landscape of class action litigation in the United States has been shaped by evolving judicial interpretations of class certification requirements, and the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) is once again primed to interpret these requirements. SCOTUS has granted certiorari in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146, in order to address the use of representative samples – also referred to as the “trial by formula” method – in calculating liability and damages with respect to an entire class, and whether a class may include members who were not actually injured by the controversy at issue in a litigation.
In Tyson, plaintiffs are a putative class of meat processing employees, who claim that the company failed to properly compensate class members for donning, doffing, and transporting required protective equipment, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. At trial, class counsel and experts presented observational studies undertaken to determine the average time spent donning, doffing, and transporting equipment, which serve as the basis for calculating liability and damages in this case. However, Tyson asserts that all class members are not sufficiently similar to the hypothetical “average” employee to satisfy the commonality requirement of class certification; thus, Tyson argues, the analysis should not be allowed by the courts.
Opponents of the use of representative proof maintain that statistical analyses merely lead to generalizations about populations rather than determinative findings about individuals within populations, disregarding factors unique to individual cases and the absence of actual injury to some class members. In precedent cases, the Court has agreed. In Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S. ___ (2011), SCOTUS held that plaintiffs could not fulfill the commonality requirement of class certification by extrapolation or statistical sampling. Nonetheless, in Tyson, a split Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s holding that plaintiffs’ use of statistical analyses in determining liability and damages did, in fact, satisfy class certification requirements.
The resolution of these conflicting decisions will have major implications on class certification in cases across various sectors. SCOTUS has the opportunity to greatly expand or narrow the use of the class action device by upholding or reversing the Eighth Circuit’s decision. Tyson will be heard in the Court’s upcoming term, which begins in October; this blog will report updates as they become available.
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