Chicken catchers who say they’re underpaid have made another significant gain in their legal battle against a suburban-based poultry wholesaler.
On Sept. 18 in Chicago, U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve granted conditional class certification to a group of former Koch Foods employees who claim the Park Ridge-based company failed to pay them minimum wage and overtime.
In June 2016, Mississippi men Jimmy R. Nicks and James R. Patrick filed for a class action against Koch Foods and its subsidiaries operating chicken farms in Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. Nicks and Patrick formerly worked for Koch, through a contracting company, catching and caging chickens at a Koch poultry processing farm in Mississippi.
Koch Foods is owned by 55-year-old Chicago man Joseph Grendys, whom Forbes magazine listed in 2016 as the 335th richest American.
In a May 15 ruling, St. Eve rejected Koch’s motion to dismiss the complaint. The company argued a Mississippi subsidiary, not Koch or other subsidiaries, was the correct defendant. The man said Koch violated the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay contracting companies enough to be able to then pay minimum wage and overtime. One such contractor, Jet Poultry Services, of Summit, Miss., was named as a defendant in the suit, but settled with plaintiffs Jan. 11.
Koch said the class should not be certified because the parties have already engaged in a degree of discovery and therefore the court would need a more stringent standard than whether all proposed class members are “similarly situated.” St. Eve rejected that argument, noting “discovery thus far has primarily focused on jurisdictional and venue issues,” a limit put in place during review of the motion to dismiss.
At this point, St. Eve explained, Koch hasn’t produced a list of potential claimants, nor has “extensive discovery explicitly focused on the ‘similarly situated’ issue.” As such, she needed only to see the plaintiffs make a “modest factual showing” that they and other class members have enough in common to move forward with conditional certification.
Koch further argued the plaintiffs failed to identify a common corporate policy that violates the FLSA and reiterated potential class members worked in different locations for different third-party contractors and supervisors. They also said procedural and fairness concerns should preclude certification.
St. Eve said the workers do not have to “identify a specific, written policy requiring them to work overtime,” only to allege a de facto practice at more than one work site. Further, the workers provided sufficient evidence that although the contractors paid employees directly, Koch policies dictated those contractors’ ability to pay for overtime. The workers are not saying the company’s piece-rate payment system directly violates the FLSA, but that the way it is implemented results in unpaid overtime, a situation that does violate the FLSA.
With respect to the different work sites, St. Eve noted the plaintiffs cleared that objection by providing “multiple affidavits from workers from multiple locations demonstrating that they perform similar duties.”
St. Eve also was not moved by Koch’s argument it would be inefficient and costly to require class members and their work supervisors to participate in a trial in Chicago. She said the plaintiffs are not required to prove certification would lead to judicial efficiency and procedural fairness. Even if those factors were at hand, she continued, they would work in the plaintiffs’ favor because she already determined the prospective class members had similar jobs in similar working conditions, making a class action efficient.
The opinion grants plaintiffs the right to notify potential class members at any Koch facility, and St. Eve directed the parties to meet to compose a joint proposed notice form.
The plaintiffs asked St. Eve to toll the running statute of limitations for workers who might opt in to the class, but she denied that request, saying the court has not moved extraordinarily slow, nor did the workers allege that any delay in the case prevented anyone from joining the suit.
The workers are represented by the Philadelphia firm of Berger & Montague and Hardin & Hughes, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., as well as by the Chicago firm of Lite DePalma Greenberg.
Koch Foods is defended by the Chicago firm of Novack and Macey, as well as by Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berowitz, of Jackson, Miss.