When clients present their problems to me and ask for advice, they often say, “And, I know three or four other people who are dealing with the same problematic situation.” That comment is often followed by the question, “Because there are several of us facing the same problem, could we file a class action case?”
Class action lawsuits are very uncommon. However, class action lawsuits get a great deal of attention in the media, because each class action lawsuit necessarily affects a large number of people.
The most active, current class action litigation in our area involves farmers filing lawsuits against a company called Syngenta. The situation involves contamination of the nation’s corn supply with unapproved, genetically modified corn starting before and during 2013.
All civil lawsuits start with one or more plaintiffs filing a “Complaint” against one or more defendants. The law requires that if the plaintiffs or defendants want the case to be a class action, the plaintiffs or defendants must formally ask the judge to “certify” the class.
There are seven very technical requirements that all must be proved for a judge to certify a regular lawsuit as a class action.
First, the number of people affected must be so numerous that if each person filed a separate lawsuit, it would be practically (in the sense of an orderly system of justice) impossible to administer.
There is no minimum or maximum number of parties necessary to make up a “class.” The class could number as few as three or as many as a million. However, as a practical matter, at least 30 or 50 people are usually necessary for a judge to determine that individual lawsuits would be too numerous to properly administer.
Second, the parties who will compose the class must have similar legal or factual situations. Different problems created by the same person does not satisfy this requirement.
Third, the “lead parties” in the lawsuit, who will be the class representatives, must embody an almost “classic case” of all of the members of the class.
Fourth, the lead parties in the lawsuit must also have the unquestioned ability to represent all of the class members fairly and responsibly.
Fifth, if the class was not certified and several lawsuits were separately filed against the opposing party, the opposing party might face inconsistent judgments. Further, those possibly inconsistent judgments must present the possibility that it might be impossible for the opposing party to know how to properly avoid repeating the problem.
Sixth, the scope of relief sought by the class members must be similar. This similarity means that the adverse party, if it loses the case, could fix the problem globally.
Seventh, the similarities among the members of the class must outweigh the differences among the members of the class.
If a judge certifies a class, the lawsuit proceeds like most other lawsuits, with a determination and definition of harm caused and, if there is harm, a determination of the relief that is appropriate in the case.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-523-5523. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.