October 22, 2014

Tenth Circuit: Jury Verdict and Attorney Fee Award Upheld in Employee Class Action

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Garcia v. Tyson Foods, Inc. on Tuesday, August 19, 2014.

Tyson employees were required to don and doff certain protective clothing before and after performing job duties. Tyson originally compensated only certain employees for 4 to 7 minutes of this “K-code” time, eventually changing its policy to compensate all employees for 20 to 22 minutes of K-code time. However, based Tyson’s own study, employees were uncompensated for approximately 29 minutes per shift based on the times they punched in and punched out versus actual compensation.

A group of Tyson employees brought class and collective actions against Tyson, seeking unpaid wages for pre- and post-shift activities. After a jury returned an award for the employees and an attorney fee award, Tyson unsuccessfully moved for judgment as a matter of law. Tyson appealed the district court’s judgment and denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law. Tyson also argued the attorney fee award was excessive.

The Tenth Circuit addressed Tyson’s first argument – whether the evidence was sufficient to support the verdict – and found it was. The question for the jury was whether the K-code system had resulted in underpayment, and the Tenth Circuit found ample reason in the evidence to support the jury’s decision that it had, including Tyson’s own study. Tyson also challenged the proof of underpayment as to each class member. The Tenth Circuit rejected that challenge, because the proof was unnecessary, the jury could rely on representative evidence, and Tyson’s supporting cases are inapplicable.

The jury awarded less to plaintiffs than they requested. Tyson interpreted this to mean that the jury found some class members were appropriately compensated. The Tenth Circuit disagreed, finding the evidence supported a finding of undercompensation for all class members, and noting that Tyson’s argument was speculative.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit addressed the attorney fee award. The Fair Labor Standards Act provides a right to attorney fees to prevailing plaintiffs. The district court awarded over $3 million in attorney fees, despite the much lower awards to the plaintiffs. Because of ongoing class litigation in another county, the district court adopted a procedure whereby it reviewed the attorneys’ time records in camera, allowed disclosure of the hourly rate and number of hours worked, and allowed each side the chance to depose someone on the other side familiar with the billing process. Tyson objected to this process, instead requesting full discovery of billing records. The Tenth Circuit upheld the process and the award, finding good cause for the district court’s procedure and award.

The judgment was affirmed.

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