All About Class Action Lawsuits in California Employment and Labor Law Cases

Employment and Labor Law class action lawsuits in California are a special kind of lawsuit where a large group of employees comes together to file a case against their employer for violations of their employment rights.

Requirements of a Class Action Lawsuit

The larger group is represented by a smaller group called "class representatives." To approve a class action, certain requirements must be met. These requirements are that:

  • the proposed group must be "ascertainable;"
  • there exists a "well-defined community of interest in the questions of law and fact involved in the case.;" 1
  • the proposed group is so large that individual lawsuits would be impracticable;
  • the class representatives must protect the interests of the entire set of employees; and
  • the case must meet two of three other requirements as described below.

Steps to Filing a Class Action Lawsuit in California

Class action lawsuits can take a long time to complete, and they must go through several stages. These stages include:

  • filing and response,
  • discovery,
  • certification,
  • notifications, and
  • final order.

A person can "opt out" of a class action lawsuit at the notification step. This allows a person to pursue a claim on his or her own, rather than be subject to the results of the class action.

Below, our California employment law attorneys address frequently asked questions about class action lawsuits in California employment and labor law cases and how it may affect your case:

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Class action lawsuits are a way to fight back against employer violations of employee rights.

1. What is a class action lawsuit?

A class action lawsuit is a legal claim that is filed by a group of people on behalf of a larger group of people who all have been wronged by their employers in a similar way. The smaller group is called "class representatives" and is meant to provide a face to the larger group and to represent the issues the employees collectively face.

The legal justification for these kinds of cases is found in California Code of Civil Procedure Chapter 5, Permissive Joinder. It permits claims of "general interest" of "many persons" to be joined when it would be impracticable to bring them individually before a court. 2

2. What are the requirements to approve a class action lawsuit?

The requirements of a group employee action must be met before the class can be "certified" and it can be maintained in a California court. Certification is the court's approval of the group in order to permit a class action lawsuit. The decision about whether or not to allow the formation of a class does not examine the merits of (1) the case or (2) the claims of the employees. The decision to allow the class action lawsuit is based on the fulfillment of the requirements.

Class action requirements include the following:

  • The proposed group must be "ascertainable."
  • There exists a "well-defined community of interest in the questions of law and fact involved in the case." 3
  • The proposed group is so large that individual lawsuits would be impracticable.
  • The class representatives must protect the interests of the entire set of employees.
  • The case must meet two of three other requirements.

2.1 What makes a proposed class ascertainable?

In determining whether a proposed class is ascertainable, a California court will consider:

  • the definition of the proposed group of employees;
  • the estimated size of the group of employees; and
  • the means or methods that will be used to identify the members of the potential group of employees. 4

The definition of the group must be clear, logical, and make sense. It must also appropriately reflect the allegations against the employer and include employees that would appropriately fit the group.

The number of employees must be sufficient to make a class action lawsuit appropriate. There is no exact definition of what number of employees will justify such a lawsuit, but collections of 20 people or more are commonly accepted for the number requirement.

The methods used to determine who will be in the proposed employee group are also important. The methods must be efficient and practical. If the method would be impracticable, overly burdensome, or ineffective, it may be rejected.

2.2 What is a "well-defined community of interest" and how do I prove it?

In considering whether a proposed class has a "well-defined community of interest in the questions of law and fact involved in the case," a California court will consider three factors:

  1. Whether a common question of fact or law exists among the members of the group;
  2. Whether the representatives' present claims that are typical of the group; and
  3. Whether the representatives are able to adequately represent the members of the group as a whole. 5

Courts will analyze the claims of the employees to see whether the facts match one another sufficiently. While the claims do not have to be exactly the same in every case, they must be mostly and largely similar.

Representatives must "look like" the rest of the group. If a proposed representative's particular claims do not adequately match that of the rest of the group, the representative cannot protect the interests of the entire group, and will not be permitted to represent them.

2.3 How large must the class be to be "impracticable" to sue individually?

There is no definite answer to this question. The court will consider:

  • the type of claims at issue;
  • the likely length of the proceedings individually;
  • the complexities of the individual issues versus hearing the issues together; and
  • the risk that individual lawsuits will not properly protect the rights of the employees.

The size can range anywhere from ten persons to more than 1,000 persons. This determination is based on the facts of the individual case and the case as a whole.

2.4 What other requirements do the class have to meet?

In addition to the other requirements listed above, a proposed group must show that at least two of the three requirements are met. These requirements are

  • the employer broke a law and the court can fix the problem through an injunction rather than compensation only; and/or
  • the legal issues that affect the whole class must have greater importance than simple individual issues; and/or
  • an employment class action lawsuit must be the best and proper way to resolve the disputes between employer and employees.

Determining whether this kind of litigation is the best way to proceed is usually decided based on:

  • the amount of time individual cases would take;
  • the amount of money individual cases would cost; and
  • whether there is a risk of inconsistent judgments if the cases are heard individually.

3. What are the steps in creating an employment class action lawsuit?

These kinds of lawsuits can take a long time to put together and finish, but they are formed through several stages. Each of these stages can take time and requires that the proper procedure is followed.

Filing and Response

The employees, through their employment lawyer, file a complaint on behalf of the entire group. The employer then has a chance to respond to the complaint in what is called an answer.

Discovery

Discovery is a legal process that allows the parties to exchange information, documents, and other evidence relevant to the case.

Certification

Certification is a process by which a motion is filed with the court asking it to approve the class action. This is not a ruling on the merits of the case, but the court instead considers:

  • whether this form of a lawsuit is appropriate; and
  • whether the proposed group of employees is an appropriate class.

Notification

If the group of employees is certified, all members of the group must be notified of the pending lawsuit. The members can choose whether to be in the lawsuit with other employees at this point.

Final Order

If there is no appeal from the finding of the trial or settlement, the court will issue an order finalizing the case.

4. Can I "opt out" or choose not to be a part of the class?

As a potential member of the group, you are automatically included as a member of the group of employees constituting the lawsuit. During the notification stage of the process, members are notified of the lawsuit.

The notification describes the process for "opting out." If you opt out, this means that:

  • You will not be a part of the class action lawsuit;
  • You will not receive any proceeds from the case; and
  • You have the ability to file your own personal lawsuit if you choose to.

In most cases, notifications tell you that if you wish to remain in the group, you do not have to act. To leave the class often requires action as outlined by the notification.

5. Should I be part of the class action litigation against my employer?

There are advantages and disadvantages to being in a class action lawsuit that you should consider. Once you receive the notification, you have only a certain amount of time before the choice is made for you.

5.1 What are the advantages I should consider?

  • Employees coming together to pool their resources.
  • No one person is not "stuck with the bill."
  • You likely do not have to do anything unless a representative.
  • You are awarded a portion of any settlement or verdict from the case.
  • Employers are more likely to settle with a larger group than a single case.

5.2 What are the disadvantages I should consider?

  • There is less control of your individual case, and you have few if any options about how the case is handled.
  • Most cases settle for some form of financial compensation, rather than any other remedy.
  • You have no right to a personal lawsuit over the issue, even if the case is unsuccessful.

6. Can an employee be fired for joining a class action?

No. It is illegal for an employer to fire an employee simply because they choose to join with other employees in litigation. While the employer will know who the members of the class are, any form of workplace retaliation or wrongful termination is illegal and can result in penalties and a lawsuit against the employer.

If you have questions or concerns, an employment attorney at the Shouse Law Group can make sure your rights are protected.

7. What happens with attorney fees in class actions?

Attorney fees in class action cases are usually calculated as a percentage of the total settlement or verdict award. The percentage can vary depending on the case. Percentage fees better represent the interests of the employee group, encouraging attorneys to work towards the best possible settlement or verdict for everyone.

In some employment class action claims, attorney fees may be paid by the employer who violated its employee's rights.

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Call us for help...

For questions about California's class action lawsuit laws, or to confidentially discuss your case with one of our skilled California employment attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at the Shouse Law Group.

We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.


Legal References

  1. Lindner v. Thrifty Oil, 23 Cal.4th 429, 435 (2000).
  2. California Legislative Information. Cal. Code of Civ. Procedure § 382.
  3. Lindner v. Thrifty Oil, 23 Cal.4th 429, 435 (2000).
  4. Administrative Office of the Courts. Class Certification in California.
  5. Administrative Office of the Courts. Class Certification in California.

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