Does California law allow any alternatives to class action lawsuits?
UPDATED: April 20, 2011
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Yes, you can sometimes still get many of the advantages of a class action lawsuit, without being a part of one. But if a class action case already exists for your issue, you and your lawyer will need to develop a legal argument for why participating in the class action won't fairly represent your interests. Also, if a class action is pending but hasn't begun yet, you may be required to start your individual case in court very soon. Waiting too long can eliminate or severely restrict your right to have your own court case outside of the class action.
The State of California actually has four different types of class actions. Many times, California courts will allow an individual or a group of people to sue because of a need for improving a public policy. One typical alternative to being in a class action is for a court to allow what is called a mass action, instead of a class action. There are still many people in a mass action, but usually many fewer than in a class action, where there can be tens of thousands of members. Some states require each separate mass action plaintiff to prove their own damages. California tends to be more lenient in allowing mass actions, especially if denying them means denying multiple people their day in court.
A California mass action usually has more than 100 plaintiffs who join together in a civil suit. One of the main advantages to the mass action is that the plaintiffs don't have to be certified as a class, meaning that each individual plaintiff can more effectively make and collect on claims that are particular to that individual, such as damages for emotional distress. The federal Moss-Magnuson Act may apply to your situation as well, which protects consumers who live in many states, and allows for mass actions of fewer than 100 plaintiffs.
Since California voters approved Prop 64 in 2004, and the federal government passed class and mass action reform in 2005 (the Class Action Fairness Act [CAFA]), two more class action alternatives have been developed in California:
1. The Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) is an option for some. Under this law, if an employer is (a) violating rules of California labor law, and (b) you notify the State labor department, then you can have the employer sued if the California labor department refuses to act first. This kind of lawsuit is actually brought not only to represent you as the plaintiff, but all employees who were affected by the alleged wrong…but unlike a class action, if you win, you get 25% of the total award.
2. Lawsuits under California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) or the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) typically require class action approaches, but sometimes there is room for individual claims. For example, if you signed a contract with an entity, you may be able to go to arbitration as an individual and still use the UCL or CLRA as the legal basis for your case. The specific facts of your situation will be the determining factor here, so you should always talk first with an experienced lawyer who can help guide you properly.