Judge Narrows Chicken Industry Employment Class Action

On Tuesday, Judge Stephanie Gallagher issued an opinion denying, with two partial exceptions, motions to dismiss filed by multiple defendants in Jien, et al. v. Perdue Farms, Inc, et al., an action pending in District of Maryland. The case is a putative class action, filed in August 2019, alleging that poultry processing companies and data consultants conspired, in violated of the Sherman Act, to “fix and depress poultry workers compensation” and unlawfully exchange compensation data.

Judge Gallagher begins by summarizing the gravamen of the action: “Plaintiffs Judy Jien [and five other named individual plaintiffs] … on behalf of themselves individually and on behalf of a class of former and current employees, bring suit against twenty poultry processors and several of their subsidiaries or parents … plus two data consulting companies… The Third Amended Complaint [TAC]… alleges two violations of Section One of the Sherman Antitrust Act…” Those violations are “(1) a conspiracy among Defendants [except two] to fix and depress poultry workers’ compensation; and (2) a conspiracy among all Defendants for the unlawful exchange of compensation data.”  The class period runs from January 2000 until July 2021.

There are 26 named defendants in the TAC. Judge Gallagher notes that one defendant’s motion to dismiss has been mooted because that defendant ( Mar-Jac Poultry, Inc.) has been dismissed with prejudice. The docket sheet also reflects that another defendant, Simmons Foods, Inc., has filed a Notice of Motion of Proposed Class Action Settlement. Five named defendants have not filed motions to dismiss.

Judge Gallagher decides five motions. “First, several Defendants challenge Plaintiffs’ standing to pursue claims related to persons employed at Defendant Processors’ hatcheries and feed mills… Second, Foster [Poultry Farms] filled a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim… Finally, three individual defendants, Sanderson [Farms, Inc.], Jennie-O [Turkey Store, Inc.] Mountaire [Farms, Inc.] filed motions challenging the sufficiency of the claims against them…”

Judge Gallagher decides the standing issue under FRCP 12(b)(1); Foster Poultry Farm’s personal jurisdiction arguments under FRCP 12(b)(2); and the motions of Sanderson Farms Inc, Jennie-O Turkey Store, Inc. and Mountaire Farms, Inc. under FRCP 12(b)(6). She denies the 12(b)(1) motions, noting that the movants may address the issue at the class certification stage. She also denies Foster Poultry Farm’s 12(b)(2) motion, noting that the movant may renew the motion after close of discovery.  As to the 12(b)(6) motions, Judge Gallagher grants defendants Jennie-O Turkey Store, Inc. and Mountaire Farms, Inc.’s motion insofar as those motions pertain to a “per se wage fixing conspiracy,” but not as to the “rule of reason” claim.

The opinion does not specifically address the issue of dismissal of the 12(b)(6) motions with prejudice.

Per the TAC, Plaintiffs counsel are: Handley Farah & Anderson PLLC; Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC; Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP; Lockridge Grindal Nauen P.L.L.P.; Berger Montague PC; Hardin & Hughes, LLP; Robins Kaplan LLP; and The Dampier Law Firm, P.C.