Justices uphold $5.8 million award against Tyson Foods

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Posted: Mar 22, 2016 1:30 PM
Justices uphold $5.8 million award against Tyson Foods

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a setback to business, the Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a $5.8 million judgment against Tyson Foods Inc. in a pay dispute with more than 3,000 workers at a pork-processing plant in Iowa.

The court's 6-2 ruling rejected new limits Tyson asked the high court to impose on the ability of workers to band together to challenge pay and workplace issues. It was the second time this year the court has ruled against business interests in class-action cases.

The justices decided three other cases Tuesday, including one by its first 4-4 tie vote since Justice Antonin Scalia's death last month.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion that upheld lower court rulings in favor of employees of Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson. The workers sued to be paid for time spent putting on and taking off protective work clothes and equipment before wielding sharp knives in slaughtering and processing the animals.

Tyson argued in its appeal that it should not have been forced to defend a class-action lawsuit on behalf of workers at its Storm Lake, Iowa, plant. The employees do their jobs on the plant's slaughter or "kill" floor and on the processing or "fabrication" floor.

The company and business groups that supported it pressed the court to elaborate on its 2011 decision blocking a massive sex-discrimination case against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that would have included up to 1.6 million female workers. They wanted the court to rein in the use of statistical evidence to support the employees' claims.

But Kennedy, in his majority opinion, explicitly rejected the argument by Tyson and its backers to broadly rule out statistical evidence in these sorts of cases. "A categorical exclusion of that sort...would make little sense," Kennedy wrote.

The opinion relied on a 70-year-old Supreme Court decision that allows workers to use statistical evidence in lawsuits over compensation when their employer doesn't keep adequate records of their hours.

Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented. Thomas wrote that the trial court made several mistakes and never should have allowed the lawsuit to proceed. "These errors prejudiced Tyson and warrant reversal," he wrote.

Tyson has faced similar litigation around the country. In 2010, it settled a decade-long dispute with the U.S. Department of Labor by agreeing to pay workers at some poultry plants for time they spent putting on and taking off protective clothing.

In another case, the tie vote left in place a lower court ruling that barred two Missouri women from suing a bank for loan discrimination.

The women sued under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act after a bank required them to guarantee their husbands' business loans. The law protects loan applicants from bias based on marital status.

The lower courts in this case ruled that the law covers only those who apply for credit and not those who guarantee to secure the debt. Other courts have come out differently, and the Supreme Court initially agreed to decide the issue in order to resolve that disagreement.

But the one-sentence opinion does not set a national precedent and does not identify how each justice voted. It simply upholds the decision from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that applies to Missouri and six other nearby states.

Scalia had participated in arguments in the case on the first day of the court's term on Oct. 5. His aggressive questioning of the lawyer for the women suggested he would have sided with the bank in a decision that would have had nationwide effect.

In the other two cases decided Tuesday, the court:

—Sided with a hunter who objects to National Park Service rules that prevent him from using his hovercraft to track moose along Alaska's Nation River.

—Ruled that the village of Pender, Nebraska, is within the boundaries of an Indian reservation and subject to a tribal tax on liquor sales from local businesses.

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Associated Press writer Sam Hananel contributed to this report.