In a class action lawsuit, one or several plaintiffs file a larger suit on behalf of the entire group. In legal terms, they call that group a “class”. But before a class becomes official, it must receive class certification from the court.
There are a set of steps a class action must follow to shift from “separate individuals suffering the same injury” to class status. That process is the definition of “class certification.”
But why is this “class” recognition so important and how might it affect your class action claim? Read on to learn about this vital piece of class action lawsuit protocol.
Why is Class Certification Important?
Typically, class action lawsuits are against one or a limited number of companies. While the class’s injuries may be major, most often they’re small on an individual level. However, if hundreds or even thousands of people have the same grievance, that can really add up.
A class action is a means for a group of people to receive compensation for a collective loss.
This also allows them to share legal costs that might be too much if plaintiffs filed separate lawsuits. By joining together, they can afford to hold the negligent defendant accountable.
Class certification hinges on the court agreeing there are enough plaintiffs with similar circumstances to warrant class certification. You can’t have a class action lawsuit without a recognizable class. If this piece isn’t in place, the claim may not proceed through the court system.
How is a Class Certified?
To receive class certification, the first step is to find a lawyer who knows how to handle class action cases. That’s because if you don’t get class certified, you won’t be able to move forward with the claim.
Also, most class action lawyers work on contingency, meaning they only get compensation if you win. So, if you make it to the filing stage, your lawyer probably thinks you have a valid claim.
Once you have representation and they agree you have a case, they will file a complaint with the court. The judge will then look at the facts and plaintiffs, and decide if the claim warrants class certification.
Though rules may vary slightly between Federal and State claims, most judges look at the following to determine class certification.
Number of Plaintiffs
There isn’t a magic number that will automatically make a complaint turn into a class action. However, a rule of thumb is you probably need at least 40 people to have a solid group argument. That number can be less but can just as easily climb into the thousands.
The whole point of numerosity, however, is showing it would be too tedious for all claimants to file separate lawsuits.
If the plaintiff numbers seem plentiful, a judge will recognize the efficiency of appointing a representative for the class. Then there will be only one class action case joining all the claimants together.
Similar Defenses and Questions
Keep in mind that the decision to certify a class isn’t just about having “enough” people. They must also share similar questions of law or fact that pertain to the case.
In other words, a judge will consider class certification if all the class’s members were victims in the same manner. And as such, their claims will use similar legal arguments. If so, the judge may decide to combine these claims into one class action, rather than handling the same case repeatedly.
Protection of Interests
If there’s to be one or a few representatives serving as “lead plaintiffs,” the judge will also assess their suitability.
Their injuries must be typical of the other claimants. Furthermore, the class representatives must fairly and adequately protect the interests of all certified class members in this case.
This is an important determination because the lead plaintiff will be very much a part of all proceedings. They’re also in a position to accept or reject settlement offers for the entire class as the trial goes on.
A judge will look closely at the person a lawyer recommends for lead plaintiff as well as other claim participants. They will want to ensure there is a lead plaintiff that fits the bill before certifying.
A judge will also look at a complaint and decide if there needs to be more than one class. This happens when some of the plaintiffs have different interests from others in the group.
If there are enough claimants in a couple areas, a judge may decide to divide an initial complaint into subclasses. Each of these subclasses must have its own appropriate lead plaintiff.
Additional Criteria for Class Certification
Class action lawsuits are not a guarantee just because you file a complaint. A judge will also consider if a class action is the most efficient way to handle the allegations. If it seems there’s an administrative order or other action that makes more sense, the class certification won’t go through.
Another thing a judge may consider is if there’s a clear enough definition for joining the class action. For a class to receive certification, they must also lay out what class membership requires.
Finally, a judge will wish to ensure that the plaintiffs have adequate representation to handle a case of large magnitude. This is why it’s important to secure a good lawyer with class action experience prior to filing for class certification.
What Happens When a Class is Certified?
Oftentimes, the class certification proceedings serves as sort of a mini-trial. The plaintiffs’ lawyers will present evidence, the complaint will receive analysis, and the accused company’s counsel will argue against certification.
Though the judge will not render a verdict, they’ll hear all sides and decide if the class should receive certification. If the decision ends up in favor of the class action, the court will issue an order certifying the class.
At this point, the parties may enter settlement negotiations rather than taking the case to trial. Many companies wish to avoid the bad publicity that would go along with a lengthy court battle.
If a judge sees reason to certify an entire class, the defendant may fear a jury would do the same. Settling may seem the lesser of two evils for many companies once a judge grants the plaintiffs class certification.
What Happens When Class Certification is Denied?
If the class certification is unsuccessful then the group case becomes moot.
Sometimes a judge will allow the plaintiffs to amend and resubmit their complaint to rectify any issues preventing certification. At other times, the court may just dismiss the complaint entirely.
However, that does not preclude the plaintiffs from pursuing their claims individually. Denial of class certification doesn’t mean the complaint completely lacks validity.
It merely means the judge didn’t see reason to connect all the plaintiffs into one large claim. Any plaintiffs involved can still sue the defendant, they will just have to do it solo.
Find an Employment Lawyer to Guide You Through Class Certification
If you think you have a class action case and need class certification, your best bet is to meet with a lawyer right away. An attorney with experience in this area can help you determine if your complaint is valid. They will also help guide you through the certification process.
Take advantage of a free LegalASAP consultation to get more insight into the class action process. You could quickly be on your way towards getting the compensation you deserve, and helping others do the same.
Kimberly Dawn Neumann
Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a multi-published NYC-based magazine and book writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications ranging from Forbes to Cosmopolitan. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, College of Journalism. For more, visit: www.KDNeumann.com, Instagram @dancerscribe, and Twitter @KimberlyNeumann