Supreme Court Upholds $5.8 Million Award Against Tyson Foods

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

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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.

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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 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.