CALIFORNIA EMPLOYEE CLASS ACTION ATTORNEYS
Fighting for California Workers’ Rights
What is an Employment Class Action?
In class action litigation, a small number of people known as “named plaintiffs” represent a much larger group of people who have been wronged in the same way. This allows what would otherwise be a very large number of small claims to be handled as one case.
One common type of class action litigation involves employees of a large company who have been subjected to minimum wage violations, overtime violations, unsafe working conditions, or other wrongs. Employee class action suits may also be used to address unlawful workplace discrimination, such as sex discrimination or race discrimination.
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Why Bring a Claim as a Class Action?
One key reason class actions are beneficial to employees, consumers, and others fighting larger, more powerful entities is that a class action makes it possible to bring claims the employee might not be able to afford to pursue alone, or that would not be worth the time investment.
For example, if a company routinely requires employees to work off the clock to avoid paying overtime, any employee who was required to work without pay could file a wage and hour lawsuit. But, individual losses may be small, and pursuing a lawsuit may seem like more trouble, stress, and risk than it’s worth to the individual employee. Dishonest employers count on that, which is what makes class actions are such a powerful tool for asserting workers’ rights.
Employees who are frequently required to work off the clock for 10-15 minutes at the end of the day may only lose a few hundred dollars each year. Though many hourly employees could really use that money, most don’t think it’s worth filing a lawsuit over–particularly since they may fear losing their jobs. When hundreds or thousands of employees who have all lost a few hundred to $1,000 per year band together in a class action suit, the equation changes. The employer no longer had disproportionate power and resources.
In order to join claims together in a class action lawsuit, the employees must have suffered the same type of harm. So, for example, employees who were paid less than minimum wage could not join that claim in a class action with employees who were passed over for promotions on the basis of sex. However, a group of female employees could likely join together to assert a claim that the company had a practice of paying women less than men for similar work, as long as all were claiming that their income had been impacted by this practice.
How Does a Class Action Work?
Class action litigation involves a complex, multi-step process. Here is a high-level overview of employee class action litigation.
Preliminary Investigation: First, the class action attorneys must thoroughly investigate. This helps define the claims and determine who can participate in the case. Often, the class action law firm will advertise at this point and invite contact from others who have been harmed in the same way.
Choosing Named Plaintiffs: If the class action attorney believes that there is a viable claim and that the case is one that would best be filed as a class action, the next step is to choose named plaintiffs. Named plaintiffs must be selected carefully, because a class action won’t be allowed to move forward unless the court is satisfied that the named plaintiffs represent the interests of the class as a whole.
Filing the Complaint: While you have likely heard the phrase “file a class action lawsuit,” the lawsuit doesn’t technically become a class action until the court makes certain findings. Instead, a complaint is filed that alleges that a class of people is similarly affected and that the case would best be tried as a class action.
Pre-Certification Discovery: Discovery, generally, is the process that allows parties to a lawsuit to get information from each other. In a class action case, this discovery is often split into two phases. The first phase allows the plaintiff to gather information that will help show the court that there is a class of people who are similarly affected, and that the named plaintiffs are good representatives for that class. This process may involve collecting electronic data such as timeclock records, and may include depositions in which officials of the company are questioned under oath.
Motion for Summary Judgment: In nearly all class action cases, the defendant files a Motion for Summary Judgment, asking the court to decide based on the complaint that the plaintiffs don’t have a viable claim. Usually, the court will schedule a hearing on the summary judgment motion, and the plaintiffs will have a chance to present arguments to the court. If the court denies the Motion for Summary Judgment, the lawsuit moves forward. The case will begin moving along the track toward trial, although most class action cases are settled before they reach trial.
Class Certification: The parties will also typically have the opportunity to present evidence to the court on the issue of class certification. The plaintiff must show that the interests of the class are similar enough for a class action to be appropriate, that there are too many potential plaintiffs for individual cases to make sense, that the named plaintiffs are good representatives of the class, and that the filing attorneys are well qualified to represent the interests of the class.
Pre-Trial Activity and Settlement Negotiation: If the class is certified and the lawsuit survives summary judgment, the court will typically set up a schedule for additional discovery, pre-trial conferences, and any pre-trial motions. During that same time, the parties will usually attempt to negotiate a settlement. Once the lawsuit reaches this stage, the employer knows it has a lot at risk, and has reason to settle the claims without a trial. While the settlement will typically include financial compensation for the class and attorneys’ fees, the company may also agree to make changes to its policies.
Fairness Hearing: If the parties reach a settlement, the court will schedule a Fairness Hearing. The purpose of this hearing is to make sure that the agreement reached is fair to the class as a whole. Class members will be notified of the proposed settlement, and will have an opportunity to object to the terms of the settlement, though this rarely happens. The court will issue an order approving or disapproving of the settlement–usually within 30 days of the hearing. If the settlement is approved and there is no appeal, payment to class members begins.
If the parties are unable to reach a settlement, or can’t reach a settlement that the court will approve, the case may proceed to trial.
Employee Class Action FAQs
I think I have a class action claim against my employer. What should I do?
Class action litigation is extremely complicated. If you believe you may have identified a class action claim, the best thing to do is to speak to an attorney as soon as possible. Because of the complexity of this type of case, it is important to consult an attorney who has experience both with class actions and with the underlying area of law, such as employee rights.
I received a notice that I have been identified as a member of a class. What should I do?
If you want to remain a member of the class and receive a share of whatever settlement is reached or verdict is entered, you generally don’t have to do anything. However, it’s important to know that if you don’t opt out of the class, you are bound by the terms of the settlement. That means you may be cut off from filing certain claims directly against your employer. If you believe you have an individual claim against your employer that you wish to pursue, you may want to consult an attorney about whether it is in your best interest to opt out of the class.
I got a notice that the court has approved a settlement in a class action I’m part of. Now what?
Read the notice you received carefully. In most cases, you won’t have to do a thing. After the court approves the settlement and the time for filing an appeal has passed, payment to class members is distributed within 60 days.