Mass. High Court Revives Wal-Mart Class Action

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. must contend with a class of 67,500 workers alleging the discount giant shorted their wages and forced them to work through meal and rest breaks, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Circuit ruled Tuesday.

The Massachusetts high court reversed a lower court’s September 2006 decision to decertify the class of current and former hourly Wal-Mart workers who worked for the company in Massachusetts for at least a decade.

Wal-Mart is accused of shaving time off employees’ paychecks by forcing them to work off the clock and of denying them breaks amid pressure to boost the company’s profits by trimming labor costs.

The lower court’s order decertifying the class hinged on the judge’s finding that the plaintiffs hadn’t shown that the class shared common complaints, the high court said.

But the Supreme Court found Tuesday that the plaintiffs had shown evidence of Wal-Mart’s violating its employment contract terms related to meal and rest breaks.

“All members of the class were unarguably the beneficiaries of identical terms of employment,” the high court ruled.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Judicial Circuit also rejected the lower court’s motion to exclude the testimony of the plaintiffs’ expert witness, Dr. Martin Shapiro.

The expert, a statistician, had analyzed Wal-Mart’s business records and his testimony included findings that employees often missed rest breaks during busy work periods. Shapiro opined that workers likely worked through rest breaks because of under-staffing.

The lower court excluded Shapiro’s testimony as unreliable because the time cards he analyzed were not completely reliable. But the high court reversed that ruling, finding that while the business records might not be conclusive, they were certainly admissible.

Wal-Mart’s policies entitle its workers to a 15-minute paid break for every three hours worked and a 30-minute unpaid meal break for every six hours on the clock.

But the plaintiffs allege that Wal-Mart managers systematically disobey these policies under pressure from the corporate office to cut payroll costs.

Two “time-shaving” techniques are alleged: inserting unpaid meal breaks into workers’ time records and instructing employees to clock in for just a minute.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Bonsignore said the high court’s endorsement of the Wal-Mart class reverses an unrealistic decision that would have forced workers to sue individually.

“To have judges say thousands of people need to advance individual cases that cost in excess of $500,000 to advance is stunning,” he said. “It’s illogical.”

Wal-Mart has been able to offer such low prices because it illegally lowers its payroll overhead, Bonsignore said. The class action will not only benefit employees, but will also help Wal-Mart competitors that play by the rules, he added.

“They offered low prices because they were able to cheat,” Bonsignore said. “And in Massachusetts at least, they’re not going to be able to cheat anymore.”

The law firm representing Wal-Mart didn’t immediately return a call Wednesday for comment.

The plaintiffs are represented by Robert J. Bonsignore and Robin E. Brewer.

Wal-Mart is represented in this matter by GreenbergTraurig LLP.

The case is Crystal Salvas, et. al. v. Wal-Mart Store Inc., case number SJC-10108, in the Supreme Judicial Court and Appeals Court of Massachusetts.For a reprint of this article, please contact [email protected].

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