A class action is a type of lawsuit intended to adjudicate the claims of a group of similarly-situated individuals in an efficient manner. These lawsuits allow courts to resolve cases involving common factual and legal issues expeditiously since hearing cases on an individual basis may be impractical or highly inefficient. Class actions also empower plaintiffs by allowing them to secure legal counsel. When an employer has caused significant harm to a large group of employees, the damages for an individual employee may be too small for the hiring of legal counsel to be economically feasible. However, if the claims are consolidated, attorneys may be more willing to represent deserving plaintiffs for a contingency fee based on the collective damages of the class.
Power in Numbers
A class action may be a more cost-effective and powerful approach to filing certain claims against an employer.
Class action cases typically have one or more named plaintiffs, whose legal counsel will represent all the plaintiffs in the class. The named plaintiffs may be designated as class representatives. In order to serve as a class representative, the plaintiff's claims must be common and typical of the claims of other members of the class. In some cases, the court may award the class representative an “incentive award.” Judges usually have discretion about what amount of incentive is appropriate.
When Are Class Actions Against an Employer Appropriate?
A class action is appropriate in an employment context if an employer's conduct harmed many people in a similar manner. While the court does not require a minimum number of claims, an attorney who brings a class action should have a good faith belief that 30 or more claimants exist for a case to qualify as a class action.
Although a single person may file a class action lawsuit, a court will be more willing to recognize a class with multiple plaintiffs because it will be easier to demonstrate common facts or issues across different people. Once the class action is approved, the court may require either party to notify the class of the action in the manner specified by the court.
In the employment context, certain areas are particularly well suited to determination through a class action. These include violations of the state labor code or federal wage and hour laws related to overtime, failure to give employees rest breaks, and systematic workplace discrimination.
Common Employment Law Class Actions
Failure to pay overtime or minimum wage
Failure to give employees meal or rest breaks
Systemic workplace discrimination
Both compensatory and punitive damages may be available in an employment class action lawsuit, depending on the basis of the suit. For example, punitive damages are available under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. This statute permits the award of punitive damages against nongovernmental employers who engage in a discriminatory practice with malice or with reckless indifference to an aggrieved individual's federally protected rights.
Many employers act through employees or agents, so the intent necessary to justify punitive damages may be evidenced through the intentional actions of an employer's agent in cases where the employer authorized the action, the employer recklessly employed an unfit agent, the agent was a manager acting in the scope of employment, or an employer or manager approved an act after the fact. An agent does not necessarily need to be a high-level officer of a company for his or her intent to be imputed to the company; the actions of a manager, supervisor, or anyone else with authority can give rise to employer liability. If those actions affect a large number of people, a class action might be appropriate to provide a remedy to all of the affected employees.