Damage Awards and Attorneys’ Fees Survive Appeal in Donning and Doffing FLSA Case Against Meat Packing Behemoth Tyson Foods

On August 19, 2014, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected every argument raised by Tyson Foods, Inc. in its appeal of a decision by the Kansas District Court in Garcia v. Tyson Foods, Inc., a wage-and-hour case in the class of plaintiffs claim underpayment in violation of both the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Kansas Wage Protection Act (KWPA). Plaintiffs in the case alleged that they were required to spend an average of about ten to twenty minutes each shift putting on and taking off protective clothing and walking to and from their workstations, but were paid for only four to seven of those minutes under Tyson’s company policies. The case went to trial, and the jury ultimately awarded the plaintiffs $166,345 for their FLSA claims, 336,666 for their KWPA claims, plus 3,389,207.41 in attorneys’ fees.

An interesting feature of the plaintiffs argument here is that the defendant actually acknowledged its obligation to pay employees for “donning and doffing” time and maintained policies for doing so. Under its wage policy, workers “were paid through two systems: (1) “gang time,” which was intended to compensate for time spent working on the production line, and (2) “K-Code” time, which was intended to compensate for time spent on pre- and post-shift activities, such as putting on protective clothing and equipment, taking them off, and walking to and from the work stations.” So the allegation is not that Tyson simply failed to pay workers for this extra time, but that the company didn’t pay enough to cover all the hours spent.

In its appeal, Tyson raised three arguments against the District Court’s ruling. First, they argued, the Court was incorrect to accept and continue the certification of the class, based on dissimilarities between some of the plaintiffs and gaps in the information about them; however, the Court found that “there was a reasonable basis for the jury’s finding of systematic undercompensation,” and that this evidence was also “sufficient for the finding of class-wide liability.” Second, Tyson argued that some members of the class were not underpaid, and thus the jury’s calculation of damages could not have been correct. Finally, the Defendants argued against the almost-3.5 million awarded for attorneys’ fees. They argued that the company was entitled to itemized records of attorney time spent on the case by plaintiffs’ counsel, that they were not entitled to collect fees for time spent pursuing unsuccessful motions, and that the jury award was far out of proportion with the amount of the award in the case (about 8%, actually). The court, acknowledging the disproportionality of the attorneys’ fees relative to the damage awards, concluded that the District Court had acted well within its discretion in assessing those damages, and cited case law in which the Supreme Court and others had concluded that awards for attorneys’ fees can far out of proportion with the amount of the settlement or verdict and yet be within the Court’s discretion to accept.

If you are an employee and you believe your employer has failed to pay all the wages you are owed, including time-and-a-half for hours worked beyond 40 in any given week, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.