Your employer recently started denying you meal breaks. It turns out that many other employees are being denied meals and even minimum wages.
Can you initiate a class action lawsuit on behalf of yourself and your colleagues?
Likely, yes. There are five important steps in bringing and resolving a class action suit. These are:
- filing a lawsuit,
- class certification,
- notification and discovery,
- resolution of the case, and
- notification of the members.
Note that a class action lawsuit is where one or more plaintiffs file a legal action as representatives of a class or large group of people with similar claims.1
You can bring class action cases in either federal court or state court.
1. Does the filing of a lawsuit initiate class action litigation?
Most often, yes. The class action laws of most states say that claimants start a class action case by filing a lawsuit.
A class action lawyer will start an individual lawsuit by filing a complaint in state or federal court.
A lead plaintiff or named plaintiff usually files a suit as a class representative, or on behalf of other members of the class.
Experienced attorneys can file a class action complaint in cases involving (but not limited to):
- consumer fraud,
- false advertising or unfair business practices,
- dangerous or defective products (for example, product liability cases),
- medical devices causing similar injuries,
- data breaches,
- employment wages and hours,
- civil rights violations,
- securities violations,
- immigration violations,
- asbestos violations,
- antitrust violations, and
- mass torts involving personal injury.
2. Does a judge have to certify a class?
Yes. Once a complaint is filed, a judge must certify the class for the case to move forward.
“Certification” is part of a class action where a judge decides whether a class as a whole meets certain requirements as prescribed by state or federal law.
Some of these requirements include that the proposed class or potential plaintiffs:
- consists of a large number of people (as opposed to a small group or number of plaintiffs),
- are affected by or experiencing similar facts, similar claims, legal issues, and common questions of the law, and
- are adequately represented by a class action attorney or law firm.2
Note that when a judge decides whether or not to certify a class, the judge does not rule on the merits of the case. The judge simply determines whether the case can proceed under the law.
3. What is notification and discovery?
If a judge certifies a class, then the lawsuit advances.
The court will typically notify the plaintiffs of the certification status by mailing them a notice of the legal claim.
The notice usually informs a plaintiff as to:
- the facts of the case, and
- his/her rights.
Note that upon receipt of the notice, a plaintiff has the right to “opt-out” of the class action suit. “Opt out” means the plaintiff decides not to take part in the lawsuit.
The notice will set forth the specific rules for how to officially opt out from the case.3
After the class members are notified, the case moves to a discovery phase of litigation.
Discovery is the part of a lawsuit where attorneys:
- investigate the case and gather evidence,
- exchange information and documents, and
- generally build their case in preparation for trial.4
4. How is a class action case resolved?
Many class action lawsuits settle without going to trial. The judge most often reviews a class action settlement to ensure it provides fair compensation for the class members.
With a settlement, the defendant is typically ordered to pay the plaintiffs’ fees and costs (for example, attorneys’ fees, and court costs).
Upon settlement, the defendant typically creates a fund to compensate the plaintiffs.
If a case does not settle, then it moves to a trial. The trial is typically held before a jury.
At the completion of the trial, the jury weighs all of the evidence presented by the plaintiffs and defendant and rules in favor of one side.
If the jury finds in favor of the plaintiffs, then as with a settlement, a defendant will establish a way to compensate the class members.
5. Do the class members get notified of a court ruling?
Yes. Once a case settles or a jury reaches a verdict, the attorneys for the class will send the class notification of how the case was resolved.
If a jury award involves a payout, the notification will include details on how a class member can receive compensation. Members usually must collect their money by a certain date.
If a member fails to collect his/her payout on time, then the money is usually:
- returned to the defendant,
- distributed among the other class members, or
- donated to a charity.
- Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Class or representative action.”
- See, for example, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. See also Sav-On Drug Stores v. Superior Court (2004) 34 Cal. 4th 319.
- Note that if you opt out from a class action suit, you still have the right to file an individual lawsuit.
- Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition – “Discovery (Trial practice).”