Class action lawsuits – in which a large group of people sue a defendant claiming that each has been injured in some similar way – are often used a convenient way of settling many similar claims in one action, rather than clogging up the legal system with multiple, duplicative suits. However, one of the major hurdles to bringing a class action, as the plaintiffs in a suit against a Comcast corporation subsidiary recently learned, is getting the court to certify the plaintiffs as a class.
Thomson Reuters reports that two employees at Comcast Cable Communications Management in Washington, Karen Ginsburg and Jessica Walker filed a case on behalf of more than 2,000 customer account executives, claiming that the company violated the Washington Minimum Wage Act among other Washington wage-and-hour laws. The plaintiffs claimed that they and others, all hourly wage employees, were required to arrive at work early and perform unpaid tasks before their shifts began. However, Judge Richard Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington found that there was not enough in common among the varying claims to certify them as a class.
Class Action Certification Requirements
In general, to be certified as a class, plaintiffs must meet four tests: commonality, adequacy, numerosity, and typicality.
Thecommonality requirement means that the plaintiffs must have at least one legal or
factual claim ‘common’ to the entire class. In other words, the plaintiffs must have enough in common that it makes sense for them to sue together rather than separately. In some cases, plaintiffs have to show that the issues they have in common will ‘predominate’ over the individual issues each has against the defendant.
Adequacy means that the parties that represent the class as a whole – Ginsburg and Walker, in this case – must adequately protect the interests of the class. Since many, if not most, of the class members probably will not be actively participating in the litigation, courts want to ensure that the representative parties are working in line with what is best for the class as a whole.
The numerosity test essentially says that the class should be large enough that individual lawsuits by individual plaintiffs is impractical. Courts want to balance efficiency with allowing individuals to prosecute their own claims, so class actions are meant for situations in which consolidating many individual claims is a better resolution more than pursuing individual suits.
Finally, typicality is meant to ensure that the claims made by the plaintiff have some relationship with (are typical of) the claims made on behalf of the class at large. It is also used as a general guiding line such that it limits the class to people who are generally encompassed by the named, or representative, plaintiff’s claims.
Commonality Was Lacking in the Comcast Case
In the Comcast case, the District Court took issue with the plaintiffs’ assertions regarding the commonality requirement. Judge Jones found that, while the various customer account executives faced pressure to spend more time talking to clients, the form those pressures took were so different – and there were enough employees who claimed that they were specifically told not to work overtime at all – that “individualized questions abound[ed]” and class certification should be denied.
As the Comcast employees recently learned, overcoming the first hurdle in a class action, class certification, can be a tricky and technical business. If you feel that you and your fellow employees comprise a class in a suit against your employer, contact our attorneys to help you evaluate your class claims.