Class Action

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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A lawsuit that allows a large number of people with a common interest in a matter to sue or be sued as a group.

The class action suit began in the EQUITY courts of seventeenth-century England as a bill of peace. English courts would allow a bill of peace to be heard if the number of litigants was so large that joining their claims in a lawsuit was not possible or practical; the members of the group possessed a joint interest in the question to be adjudicated; and the parties named in the suit could adequately represent the interests of persons who were absent from the action but whose rights would be affected by the outcome. If a court allowed a bill of peace to proceed, the judgment that resulted would bind all members of the group.

Justice JOSEPH STORY, who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1811 to 1845, advocated the development of the bill of peace in the United States. He wrote that in equity courts, "all persons materially interested, either as plaintiffs or defendants in the subject matter of a bill ought to be made parties to the suit, however numerous they may be," so that the court could "make a complete decree between the parties [and] prevent future litigation by taking away the necessity of a multiplicity of suits" (West v. Randall, 29 F. Cas. 718, 2 [C.C.R.I. Mason] 181 [1820] [No. 17, 424]). The bill of peace, and later the class action, provided a convenient and efficient vehicle for resolving legal disputes affecting a number of parties with similar claims. Common issues that could have similar outcomes did not have to be tried piecemeal in separate actions, thus saving the courts and the litigants time and money.

Initially, a class action could be brought only in equity cases, disputes in which the parties did not necessarily seek monetary damages but instead might desire some other type of relief. The adoption of Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1938 broadened the scope of the class action suit, providing that cases in law seeking money damages as well as cases in equity could be brought as class actions. In 1966, the scope of the class action was again clarified and expanded when Rule 23 was amended to provide that unnamed parties to a class action were bound by the final judgment in the action so long as their interests were adequately represented.

Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure defines three kinds of class actions. The first type may be brought where separate lawsuits might adversely affect other members of the class or the defendant in either of two ways?if the piecemeal litigation resulting from separate suits might impose inconsistent standards of conduct on the defendant, or if multiple suits might "impair or impede" the class members from protecting their various interests. In the second type of class action, a class seeks an INJUNCTION or some type of relief compelling the defendant either to cease a certain activity or to perform some other type of action. In the third category of class action lawsuit, there are QUESTIONS OF LAW or fact common to the entire class that predominate over questions peculiar to each individual plaintiff, and a class action suit is a more efficient means to resolve the controversy. Under the third type of class action, individual members of the class may "opt out" of the litigation if they do not

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want to be bound by the results of the suit. Courts have held that DUE PROCESS requires that absent class members be given adequate notice, adequate representation, and adequate opportunity to opt out, before they can be bound by a final judgment in the suit (Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts, 472 U.S. 797, 105 S. Ct. 2965, 86 L. Ed. 2d 628 [1985]).

Class action suits have led to social reform in the United States. They have helped to remedy discrimination based on race and gender; been used to address inequities in education, housing, and VOTING RIGHTS laws; and helped to ensure due process. For example, BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873...

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