Written by Galen Shimoda and Justin Rodriguez
There always seems to be a television show on at any given time that portrays the life of attorneys as freewheeling, full of glitz and glamour. This portrayal becomes even more exaggerated when the subject of class action litigation is on display. The show starts with an attorney sitting in his or her office, just minding their own business, when, suddenly, a potential client comes in and says he or she wants to sue. Three minutes later, the scene changes and magically there is a $50 million class action lawsuit that is already being presented to a jury. If only it were that easy.
Although the American justice system has a foundational premise that every person is entitled to their day in court, the realities of limited courtroom resources and an increasingly litigious society has brought us a compromise; namely, the class action. But, a potential client cannot just decide they want to be a class representative and change what would otherwise be individualized litigation into a complex, representative lawsuit. California requires that a “community of interests” be present, which essentially means there are certain minimum criteria that must be met in order for a class action to be properly maintained. One criterion is that any class representative must fairly and adequately represent and protect the interests of the absent class members.
So, what does this mean? Well, first, there can be no conflict of interest between the representative and the class they seek to represent. Courts will simply not allow a class representative to bind the rights and obligations of absent class members unless it is sure the class representative has the best interests of the class at heart. This is ordinarily addressed by making sure that the class representative has similar claims to the class he or she seeks to represent. For example, a person with unpaid overtime claims may be able to represent a class consisting of others who also have unpaid overtime claims. Second, the class action representative becomes a fiduciary (i.e. a trusting, loyal representative) to the class members. In other words, a class representative cannot sacrifice the interests of absent class members for individual gain. In fact, a court has to approve any class action settlement in a “fairness hearing” before a class action may truly be resolved without a trial.
From a more practical standpoint, being a class representative also means acting as a champion of the class, actively participating in all aspects of the case. This can be labor intensive depending on whether the class consists of one hundred, one thousand, or even ten thousand members. With the assistance of her attorney, the class representative is responsible for answering questions during the discovery process, will be the one to attend all negotiation proceedings, and will most certainly be a witness at trial. Litigation is a serious business, even more so when it is on behalf of a collective group of people.
This does not mean one should shy away from seeking to be a class action representative. Indeed, the class action device remains an indispensable tool for allowing employees to address widespread wrongs done to them by their employer. It is also often the only effective means to gain relief when the value of a claim is too low to justify individualized litigation. While being a class action representative may not actually be as easy or glamorous as television makes it out to be, it is an important procedure whereby a properly informed individual can choose to stand up for themselves and the rights of others.
If you think you may have potential claims relating to your employment or believe you have claims appropriate for a class action, contact our office to have your claims evaluated.