Fighting Giants: The Civil Roots Origins of Class Action Litigation

By Shounak S. Dharap

Have you ever gotten a notice in the mail telling you that you’re entitled to some money in a class action you didn’t even know you were a part of? Most people don’t realize that class actions like this have their roots in the civil rights movement and exist as some of the most powerful tools for folks to band together to take on corporate giants and governments. From fighting consumer fraud to tackling environmental disasters, class actions drive real change and hold the powerful accountable. In honor of Juneteenth, we’ll discuss how this tool—born from the fight for civil rights in America—continues to protect and empower the marginalized and disenfranchised.

What is a Class Action?

A class action is a type of lawsuit where a group of people who have suffered similar harm join together to sue the responsible party as group. This type of lawsuit is particularly effective at seeking justice because it allows individuals to present a united front against powerful entities. It also allows people to pursue claims that might have limited monetary value, which means they might have trouble getting a lawyer to take the case on an individual basis or the costs of the lawsuit (like filing, depositions, experts) might exceed the recoverable damages. You typically see class actions addressing issues such as consumer protection, wages and hours, product liability, securities fraud, employment discrimination, and environmental disasters.

A Product of the Civil Rights Movement

The Turbulent 1960s and the Need for Legal Tools

The 1960s were a turbulent time in America, marked by the civil rights movement’s struggle to end segregation and racial discrimination. During this period, activists and ordinary citizens alike fought tirelessly for equality, often facing violent resistance and systemic obstacles. It became clear that new legal tools were needed to combat entrenched discrimination effectively. In response to these challenges, Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure was amended in 1966 to enable groups of people to fight for their rights more effectively.

Problems with Rule 23 Before the Amendment

Before the amendment, Rule 23 had several issues that made it difficult for plaintiffs to address systemic discrimination through class actions. The rule classified class actions into three categories: “true,” “hybrid,” and “spurious” classes, each with different requirements and implications. This classification system was confusing and inconsistent, leading to varied interpretations and applications by judges.

Many judges, especially in the South, used these classifications to deny class certification for civil rights cases. They often argued that the issues in these cases were too individualized to be treated as a class action, even when the plaintiffs were challenging systemic practices like school segregation. By refusing to certify these cases as class actions, judges could limit the scope of any court orders, effectively preventing broad, systemic change.

For example, after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, many Southern school districts resisted desegregation. They implemented tactics like pupil assignment laws, which allowed school boards to assign students to schools on a case-by-case basis. This made it difficult to prove that segregation was occurring on a systemic level, as each student’s case was treated individually.

Judges who were opposed to desegregation could deny class certification by claiming that the cases did not meet the technical requirements of the old Rule 23. This meant that any court orders to desegregate schools would apply only to the individual plaintiffs who brought the case, not to the entire school district or state. As a result, progress towards desegregation was slow and uneven, with many schools remaining effectively segregated despite the Brown decision.

The 1966 Amendment to Rule 23

The 1966 amendment to Rule 23 sought to address these issues by creating a more straightforward and effective framework for class actions. The new Rule 23(b)(2) allowed plaintiffs to seek injunctive or declaratory relief on behalf of an entire class when the defendant’s actions affected the group as a whole. This change made it easier for courts to issue broad orders that could bring about systemic change, which was particularly important in the context of civil rights.

After the amendment, Rule 23(b)(2) became a powerful tool for enforcing civil rights. It allowed groups of individuals to challenge discriminatory practices that affected them collectively, such as segregation in schools, discriminatory hiring practices, or unequal access to public services. The revised rule provided a clear legal pathway for courts to address these issues on a broad scale, ensuring that remedies would benefit all affected individuals, not just the ones who filed the lawsuit.

Impact of the Amended Rule 23

For example, the use of Rule 23(b)(2) in employment discrimination cases enabled entire classes of workers to seek systemic changes in discriminatory workplace practices. Similarly, it has been used to address housing discrimination, ensuring that remedies could be applied to all tenants affected by biased policies.

By allowing for group-wide injunctive relief, the amended Rule 23 has facilitated significant progress in dismantling systemic discrimination. It has empowered marginalized communities to stand up against injustices and achieve meaningful, lasting change. This legacy continues today, as Rule 23(b)(2) remains a critical tool in the ongoing fight for civil rights and equality.

By understanding the roots of Rule 23(b)(2) in the civil rights movement and its evolution after the amendment, we can appreciate its ongoing importance in the fight for justice and equality. This rule represents a powerful legacy of the civil rights era, providing a vital tool for collective action and systemic change.

Continuing Impact of Class Actions on Society

Class actions continue to be a powerful tool for achieving justice and driving societal change. By allowing groups of individuals to come together and challenge systemic issues, class actions have led to significant changes across various industries and aspects of society.

Imagine you’re an employee facing racial discrimination at work, a consumer misled about the safety of a product, or a resident of a community devastated by an environmental disaster. Individually, fighting a large corporation can seem impossible. But class actions enable ordinary people to pool their resources and stand up for their rights collectively. Here are three examples that illustrate the power and impact of modern class actions:

Consumer Protection: The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement

One of the most significant class action lawsuits in history involved the tobacco industry. The Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement resulted from lawsuits filed by several states’ attorneys general against major tobacco companies for misleading the public about the dangers of smoking. The settlement required tobacco companies to pay billions of dollars in compensation and led to significant changes in the marketing and sale of tobacco products. This case not only compensated those harmed by smoking but also contributed to public health initiatives and awareness campaigns about the dangers of tobacco use.

Environmental Justice: BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The class action lawsuit against BP following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a notable example of class actions addressing environmental issues. The spill had devastating effects on the environment and the livelihoods of communities along the Gulf Coast. The class action lawsuit resulted in a substantial settlement for the affected communities and wildlife. The case highlighted the severe impact of environmental negligence and underscored the importance of corporate accountability and environmental protection. It also led to stricter regulations and increased corporate responsibility in the oil and gas industry.

Civil Rights: Coca-Cola Racial Discrimination Settlement

In 2000, Coca-Cola agreed to pay over $156 million to resolve a class-action lawsuit filed by African American employees alleging racial discrimination. The lawsuit, brought by four employees on behalf of themselves and 2,200 others, claimed discrimination in pay, promotions, and performance evaluations. This settlement, the largest ever for a racial discrimination case at the time, also required Coca-Cola to implement significant internal changes, highlighting the role of class actions in promoting workplace equality.

The Broader Social Impact of Class Actions

Making Products Safer

Class actions force companies to improve product safety and transparency. When consumers join forces to sue over defective or dangerous products, it not only compensates those affected but also pressures companies to implement better safety standards and provide clear disclosures. This proactive change helps prevent future harm and ensures that products in the market are safer for everyone.

Enforcing Wage Laws

Wage and hour class actions play a critical role in ensuring fair treatment of workers. These lawsuits enforce wage laws, compelling companies to pay their employees correctly and adhere to labor regulations. Successful wage class actions result in more companies abiding by these laws, leading to better working conditions, fairer pay, and greater respect for workers’ rights across industries.

Promoting Corporate Accountability

Class actions hold corporations accountable for their actions, whether it’s environmental damage, consumer fraud, or employment discrimination. By pooling resources and presenting a united front, affected individuals can challenge powerful entities that would otherwise be too daunting to face alone. This accountability leads to industry-wide changes, improved corporate practices, and a more just society.

Encouraging Compliance with Regulations

The threat of class actions incentivizes companies to comply with regulations to avoid costly lawsuits and settlements. This compliance ensures that businesses operate within legal and ethical boundaries, benefiting consumers, employees, and the environment. It also fosters a culture of responsibility and integrity within industries.

Challenges of Class Actions

While class actions are a powerful tool for achieving justice and driving societal change, they are also inherently complex and demanding. There’s a reason that class actions are classified as “complex litigation.” Here are some of the key challenges involved:

Legal Complexity

Class actions involve intricate legal procedures and rigorous requirements for certification. To qualify as a class action, a case must meet several criteria, including numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation. These standards ensure that the claims of the class members are sufficiently similar to be handled together, but proving these elements can be a significant hurdle.

Resource Intensity

Class actions require substantial resources. The process involves extensive investigation, gathering of evidence, expert testimonies, and prolonged litigation. These cases often last for years, demanding a significant investment of time and capital. For firms operating on a contingency basis, this means bearing the costs upfront with no guarantee of recovery, which can be a considerable financial risk.

Prolonged Duration

The timeline for class actions can be extensive. From the initial filing to the final resolution, these cases can take several years to conclude. This prolonged duration can be challenging for plaintiffs who are seeking timely relief and for law firms that must sustain the financial burden over an extended period. Patience and persistence are essential as the legal process unfolds through various stages, including discovery, certification, trial, and potentially appeals.

Certification Challenges

Obtaining class certification is a critical step in a class action lawsuit, but it is also one of the most challenging. Courts scrutinize the case to ensure it meets all the requirements for certification, and defendants often vigorously oppose this step. Failure to achieve certification can result in the dismissal of the case or force plaintiffs to pursue individual claims, which can be less effective and more burdensome. The certification process involves demonstrating that the class meets criteria such as numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation.

High Stakes

Class actions often involve significant financial stakes, both in terms of potential settlements or judgments and the costs of litigation. The outcome can have far-reaching implications for the plaintiffs, the defendant, and the broader industry. This high-stakes nature requires a careful and strategic approach to litigation. Law firms must balance the potential rewards against the considerable risks and resources involved in pursuing these complex cases.

The Benefit of Experienced Class Action Attorneys

Given these challenges, successful class action litigation demands a high level of expertise, experience, and resources. Law firms that specialize in class actions must navigate the complexities of the legal system, manage extensive casework, and sustain long-term financial commitments. Their ability to achieve class certification and ultimately secure favorable outcomes for their clients hinges on their proficiency in handling these multifaceted cases.

Arns Davis has a proven track record of managing such complexities. We have been approved as class counsel by state and federal courts across the country. This expertise allows us to advocate effectively for our clients, ensuring that their rights are protected and justice is served.

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