In 2001, in the case of Walmart vs. Duke, female employees at WalMart filed a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit against WalMart Stores in the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The lawsuit alleged that female employees of WalMart were being denied advancement and training opportunities, paid less than men for the same or comparable work, steered to lower wage departments, subjected to a sexually hostile work environment and retaliated against when they attempted to address sex discrimination.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether 1.5 million female employees of WalMart could, in fact, pursue job discrimination claims in one lawsuit or whether they’d have to split up and file against individual stores. The case was the largest employment class-action lawsuit in the nation’s history up to that point. The Court ultimately decided in favor of Walmart – declaring that such an all emcompassing class-action employment lawsuit could not move forward.
Many legal observers concluded that the Court, by its actions in Walmart vs. Duke, had made it harder for workers, investors and consumers to join together in class-action lawsuits to pursue their claims.
Well last week, to the surprise of some, the U.S. Supreme Court actually sided with thousands of pork processing workers employed by Tyson Foods who had filed a class-action lawsuit to recover overtime wages from the company. Justice Kennedy – writing for the majority in the 6-2 decision, said workers are entitled to rely on statistics to prove their case against Tyson.
The workers had sought to be paid for time spent putting on and taking off protective gear required by their dangerous jobs for Tyson. The company had not kept track of this contested time and workers had chosen to use statistical evidence to make their case as a group. The Court agreed it was reasonable for the workers to do so.
In his opinion, Justice Kennedy cited 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.”
Why was one class-action lawsuit deemed permissible while the other was not? In the Court’s majority view, “the experiences of the employees in Walmart bore little relationship to one another, (while) in this case (Tyson) each employee worked in the same facility, did similar work, and was paid under the same policy.”
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