Enforcing Your Legal Rights as a Consumer
You can consider taking legal action if you have suffered financial losses or other harm as a result of consumer fraud or violations of consumer protection laws. One option is to report the problem to the government agency tasked with regulating the industry at issue. They can then investigate the complaint and launch an enforcement action if they choose. For instance, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) operates a Bureau of Consumer Protection that is designed to fight deceptive and unfair practices by businesses.
On the other hand, you may want to bring a civil claim against a business that defrauded you. This may be appropriate even if the government did not pursue an enforcement action based on the conduct. Since your losses may not be substantial, you may want to consider joining other consumers in a class action. If you choose to proceed on your own, you might bring a case in small claims court.
The idea behind class actions is that many plaintiffs who have suffered the same type of harm caused by the same defendant can bring a case together. This allows the case to be resolved in a more time-efficient and cost-efficient manner. The case also will be more attractive to an attorney because the combined amount at stake is generally much greater than the amount lost by any individual plaintiff.
Federal and state rules of civil procedure provide certain requirements for class actions. For example, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure outline four basic criteria. The class must be too large to make it practical to handle each claim individually, the claims of the class members must share common legal and factual issues, the named plaintiff in the case must have claims that are typical of the class, and that plaintiff must be able to fairly and adequately represent the interests of the class as a group.
Once a class is certified, the court will notify potential class members of the case and give them a chance to opt out of it. Any settlement in a class action must receive approval from a court, and each class member has the opportunity to object to it. (This is not an empty requirement, and some notable class actions have seen settlements rejected when the court felt that they were inadequate.)
Small Claims Court
If you are seeking damages in an amount below a certain limit, you may be able to bring a case in small claims court. (Some states even require a case seeking damages below a certain amount to be brought in small claims court.) The monetary limits vary from state to state, but they are generally between a few thousand dollars and about $25,000. Sometimes the limit excludes attorney fees and court costs.
Bringing a case in small claims court is usually cheaper than bringing a case in regular court. While you can retain a lawyer to represent you, you may not need a lawyer, and the filing fees are usually lower. Small claims courts also use more relaxed procedural and evidentiary rules, which can make them friendlier to individual, unsophisticated plaintiffs. However, rulings in these courts are just as binding and enforceable as rulings in regular courts.
Consumer Protection Law Center Contents