In a typical lawsuit, one plaintiff has injured one or more defendants. The amount of damages that the plaintiff has suffered may justify the high cost of litigation.
In class action lawsuits, the individual value of damages may not be very high. For example, consumers may have been wrongly charged a $10 fee or be unhappy with a product. It would be highly unlikely that an individual would file a lawsuit to recover $10 for the fee or perhaps $30 for the defective product. If more than one person had the same issue, filing separate lawsuits would be expensive and time-consuming.
Class action lawsuits allow these plaintiffs to unite and form a united front. The case may be able to proceed as a class action lawsuit in which a judgment can benefit all of the plaintiffs, who then split the proceeds.
Sometimes, a large group of employees have the same or very similar complaints against their employer. Perhaps the employer has violated anti-discrimination laws, affecting many employees.
As mentioned, it would be possible for each employee to start a personal lawsuit against the company, but that would be impractical and duplicative. In a class action lawsuit, the group members can sue the employer as a group instead of as individuals. For purposes of the lawsuit, the group will be represented by just one or a few members of the group, acting on all of their behalf.
Grouping to file the lawsuit saves the individuals a lot of money – for example, they only need to hire one lawyer instead of many, one for each of them. All of the costs of the lawsuit will be spread out among all the members.
Certification as a Class
The first step in filing any class action lawsuit is getting the group certified for such a lawsuit. The court will consider the request for certification. The requirements to obtain certification include the following:
- Numbers. There must be a large number of people who are affected by the employer’s actions and who are appropriate for the class action lawsuit. Generally, a class is sufficiently numerous if it has more than 40 members.
- Commonality. The group members must have common questions and problems, and those issues must be susceptible to common answers (i.e., each of the group members can be awarded the same amount and type of damages).
- Typicality. The class representatives must have the same type of claim as the rest of the members.
- Adequacy of class representative and counsel.
- The class representatives must have no major conflicts of interest with absent class members.
- Counsel must have the requisite experience with the claims and class actions and not make major blunders throughout the case.
Moreover, at least one of the following must be true:
- If the people sued individually, there is a risk of inconsistent rulings, resulting in incompatible required standards of conduct for the employer. These are cases where a determination about whether the defendant’s conduct violated the law will have a bearing on the defendant’s future conduct concerning many similarly situated individuals.
- Where the funds available to compensate the claims are less than the actual amount of the predicted award, a class can be certified to ensure that the funds are allocated appropriately among all employees.
- For example, the class mechanism is useful if there is limited money, and an individual resolution would impact the relief available to the remainder of the plaintiffs. It would not be fair if the first plaintiff to win an individual lawsuit could win so much money that there would be no more left for the remainder of the plaintiffs.
- Injunctive relief (i.e., an order to do something or to refrain from doing something) is sought that would affect all of the plaintiffs, as well as potential future employees.
- The proponent of class certification must also show that a class action is superior to other means of litigating the case, focusing on factors such as the group’s interest in concentrating the case in one form and the extent of similar litigation.
Employment class action lawsuits not only help the victims receive justice but discourage future violations on the employer’s part. This is because, in part, the award to the group is much larger than it would be if there were only a single plaintiff.
What are Some Common Employment Class Action Claims and Requirements?
Some employment law violations result in class action claims more often than others. Some of the more common claims include:
- Discrimination: Workplace discrimination is a serious matter. Discrimination occurs when a person is treated differently based on being part of a “protected class:” race, gender, religion, color, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, retaliation, and sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity issues).
- Harassment: Workplace harassment comes in many forms. Demanding sexual favors in exchange for job placement or retention, unwelcome advances, threats of violence, and inappropriate behavior are all grounds for a lawsuit.
- Wage and Hour Disputes: This mainly involves overtime and minimum wage disputes. However, anything that violates the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) could qualify as the basis for a lawsuit.
- Immigration Issues: Mistreating undocumented workers is subject to severe civil and criminal penalties because these employees are exceptionally vulnerable to being abused and taken advantage of because of their immigration status
- Other Causes: Breaches of employment handbook policies and various white-collar crimes, such as fraud, are other common employment class action claims.
Sometimes, the claim may be preceded by an investigation from a government agency, such as the EEOC for discrimination claims or the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) for claims relating to those subjects. These investigations help determine whether legal action will be necessary and may help uncover further violations supporting the lawsuit.
What Types of Remedies are Available in an Employment Class Action Lawsuit?
More often than not, an employment class action lawsuit will result in monetary awards. These are intended to compensate those affected by losses caused by the violation, such as owed overtime wages. Or, if the plaintiffs have been wrongfully denied their legal wages, they may be entitled to back wages.
Punitive damages are also available. This is a monetary award designed to be high enough to punish the defendant. Since, by its nature, a class action lawsuit demonstrates that the defendant did not just make one accidental mistake but instead behaved wrongly over and over again, an award of punitive damages might be appropriate. The group members would all share in the award, which may be much higher than the award of actual damages (such as back pay).
In some cases, a non-monetary remedy may be more appropriate. Some of these remedies include:
- Court-ordered changes in employer practices
- Rewriting employment manuals to correct the infraction(s)
- Court-ordered changes in management
Some employment class action lawsuits may involve mediation or alternative dispute resolution measures.
Do I Need an Attorney for Help with an Employment Class Action Lawsuit?
Employment class action lawsuits are complicated due to the complexity of getting permission to file a lawsuit as a group. These cases often involve several legal issues and employment laws you may not know. A knowledgeable and experienced discrimination lawyer can guide you, explain your options, and represent you during court appearances.