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Class Certification Granted in Kraft Foods Overtime Case in Illinois

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In mid-September, 2011, a federal judge in Illinois granted class certification to 200 Kraft Foods employees suing the company for violations of Illinois wage and hour law. The lawsuit was filed in early 2010. The plaintiff employees claim that Kraft’s policy of not paying them for the time they spent putting on and taking off protective equipment deprived them of overtime pay and/or straight-time pay in violation of the Illinois Minimum Wage Law and the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act. Having gained class status, these employees can now proceed against Kraft in a single lawsuit in an attempt to secure the compensation to which they claim they are legally entitled.

While Kraft presented numerous arguments against class certification, the court rejected them all. As the court explained, to achieve class certification under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, plaintiffs seeking class status must first satisfy the requirements of numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation. These requirements exist to ensure that the class action system is not abused. Basically, the court will only allow a certain group of plaintiffs to represent an entire class of plaintiffs through a class action suit if: (a) the total class consists of a large enough number of people (numerosity); (b) the class consists of people who were illegally wronged in a substantially similar fashion (commonality); (c) the degree of harm allegedly experienced by the representative plaintiffs is similar to that experienced by the class as a whole (typicality); and (d) the representative plaintiffs and attorneys representing the class are capable of competently representing the interests of the entire class (adequacy of representation). In this case, Kraft objected that their employees had not satisfied Rule 23’s typicality and adequacy of representation requirements.

Kraft claimed that the lawsuit did not meet the typicality requirement due to the fact that some workers were paid for some of the time they spent putting on and taking of their protective equipment. However, the court explained that just because some employees may have violated Kraft’s policy requiring employees to put on and take off their equipment “off the clock”, the resulting differences in exactly how much compensation each employee is owed does not by itself demonstrate a lack of typicality.

Kraft also claimed that the lawsuit did not meet the adequacy of representation requirement due to the representative plaintiff’s alleged lack of credibility. Kraft asserted that, since some of the plaintiffs had allegedly purchased drugs on Kraft’s property, lied on job applications, and been disciplined for using violence at work, a jury would look disfavorably upon these plaintiffs, to the detriment of the entire class as a whole. This protest was fairly strange: Kraft was essentially objecting to a class action brought by these particular employees because Kraft thought that they would not be able to force the company to pay an adequate amount of money to the class of employees because Kraft itself would reveal irrelevant information about these employees to tarnish their credibility. The court easily rejected the argument by stating that these allegations by Kraft did not relate to the lawsuit at hand and would not significantly affect the credibility of the representative plaintiffs on this matter.

After ruling that plaintiffs had met all four Rule 23 requirements, all that was left for the court to determine was (a) whether the legal and factual issues common to the individual class members’ claims predominated over legal and factual issues which affected only particular class members, and (b) whether a class action suit seemed like the best way to fairly and efficiently resolve the dispute between Kraft and the employees. Because the court found that the factual and legal issues regarding Kraft’s donning and doffing policy–issues common to all class members’ claims–predominated, and that the employees “claims [are] ideal for resolution as a class action,” the court certified the class.

Receiving certification is a huge step forward for these employees since a company threatened with a large judgment against them will often prefer to engage in a pre-trial settlement, giving its employees the money they are owed, if not more.

If you believe that you are not being paid for all of the hours you work, or if you want to better understand your rights to fair pay, you should contact a St. Louis overtime attorney.

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