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How is California class action law related to federal class action law?

UPDATED: December 3, 2010

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In most important respects, California courts follow the same class action procedures as Federal courts. But one major aspect of judicial power varies, even though many of the conclusions of the law remain the same: California courts, rather than statutes, decide whether an “ascertainable class” of plaintiffs exists.

What does this mean?

This means California courts may be more flexible than a federal court in determining the existence of a class.

Where can I find the rules comparing both?

California courts can be said to be fundamentally consistent with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. But the language of California Code of Civil Procedure § 382 never uses the actual words “class action” regarding the class action determinations of California courts.

If these are the areas of basic overlap, what are the differences?

There are several significant differences.

1) California public policy favors class actions, as demonstrated by Sav-On Drug Stores v. Superior Court (2004).

2) California courts avoid major rulings before deciding certification, as demonstrated by Fireside Bank v. Superior Court (2007).

3) California courts view certification of the class as a procedural issue, rather than a decision about the merits of the case.

4) California courts reject a mandatory ‘opt in’ provision by potential class members, which benefits formal class actions.

5) California has a “death knell” provision, allowing an immediate appeal of a denial of certification.

6) California allows flexible, non-court ordered depositions.

7) California courts allow restraining orders even before certification of a class.

8) Federal courts are more protective of potential individual claimants by a liberal tolling of a statute of limitations for all potential class members once the suit is filed.

9) California courts may order either the plaintiff or even the defendant to pay for notice costs. 

10) In California, even a losing case may not protect the defendants from paying plaintiff’s attorney fees in California.

Overall, California’s public policy of protecting class actions makes their state courts more receptive to these claims.

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