class action

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A class action is a procedural device that permits one or more plaintiffs to file and prosecute a lawsuit on behalf of a larger group, or "class". Put simply, the device allows courts to manage lawsuits that would otherwise be unmanageable if each class member (individuals who have suffered the same wrong at the hands of the defendant) were required to be joined in the lawsuit as a named plaintiff. See Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32, 41, 61 S.Ct. 115, 118 (1940). The outcome of the case applies to all members and prevents them from bringing their own case, except in limited circumstances. Class actions can be brought in federal court under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) Rule 23 or in state courts depending on the basis for the claim. 

Significance of a Class Action

Class actions result in judgments or settlements that bind all class members, even those unaware of the action in many cases. A class action uniquely can bind someone to its outcome without the person ever receiving notice of the action, contrary to the typical requirements of procedural due process. Thus, courts must be particularly careful to ensure that an action can fairly be adjudicated as a class and follow through procedural protections. Doing so can be quite difficult and costly, particularly where the class constitutes hundreds or thousands of members. 

Class actions do much more than simply address the situation of “too many plaintiffs” to litigate a case manageably: “the justifications that led to the development of the class action include the protection of the defendant from inconsistent obligations, the protection of the interests of absentees, the provision of a convenient and economical means for disposing of similar lawsuits, and the facilitation of the spreading of litigation costs among numerous litigants with similar claims.” See: United States Parole Comm'n v. Geraghty, 445 U.S. 388, 402-03, 100 S.Ct. 1202, 1211-12 (1980). Moreover, “the class action device saves the resources of both the courts and the parties by permitting an issue potentially affecting every [class member] to be litigated in an economical fashion.” General Telephone Co. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 155, 102 S.Ct. 2364, 2369, 72 L.Ed.2d 740 (1982), which was quoting Califano v. Yamasaki, 442 U.S. at 701, 99 S.Ct. at 2557).


To proceed as a class action in federal court, Rule 23 requires that the district court make the following findings:

  1. The number of class members renders it impracticable to join them in the action
  2. The class members' claims share common questions of law or fact
  3. The claims or defenses of the proposed class representatives are typical of those for the rest of the class, and
  4. The proposed class representatives will adequately protect the interests of the entire class. FRCP, Rule 23(a)

Furthermore, in addition to the numerosity, commonality, typicality and adequacy of representation requirements of Rule 23(a), the district court must make at least one of the following findings: (1) requiring separate actions by or against the class members would create the risk of inconsistent rulings, or that a ruling with respect to individual class members may be dispositive of other class member claims thereby “substantially impair[ing] or imped[ing] their ability to protect their interests”; (2) the party against whom the class seeks relief “has acted or refused to act on grounds generally applicable to the class” so that injunctive or declaratory relief as to the entire class would be appropriate; or (3) common questions of law or fact common “predominate” over class member specific questions, and that proceeding by way of class action would be “superior to other available methods” for resolving the dispute. See FRCP, Rule 23(b).

Unique protections exist for actions brought under FRCP, Rule 23(b)(3). Unlike other class actions, every single class member must be notified of the action except those that cannot be notified with reasonable effort. See: Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156 (1974). These class members also have the right to opt out of the class action, reserving the right to bring their own action, and if they choose to remain in the class action, they can have their own appearance through counsel. 

Historical Development of Class Actions

Historically, various types of so-called “representative actions” have existed “since the earliest days of English law.” See: Ortiz v. Fibreboard Corp., 527 U.S. 815, 832, 119 S.Ct. 2295, 2308 (1999) (citations omitted). Class actions, however, are more a recent invention, created by English courts sitting in equity as “an exception to the usual rule that litigation is conducted by and on behalf of the individual named parties only.” See: Califano v. Yamasaki, 442 U.S. 682, 700-701, 99 S.Ct. 2545, 2557-2558 (1979). The “usual rule” referenced in Califano is more commonly referred to as the “necessary parties rule,” and it required that “all persons materially interested, either as plaintiffs or defendants in the subject matter of the bill ought to be made parties to the suit, however numerous they may be.” 

As Justice Story explained in West v. Randall, 29 F. Cas. 718, 721:

“The reason is that the court may be enabled to make a complete decree between the parties, may prevent future litigation by taking away the necessity of a multiplicity of suits, and may make it perfectly certain, that no injustice shall be done, either to the parties before the court, or to others, who are interested by a decree, that may be grounded upon a partial view only of the real merits.” Id.

Because when strictly enforced, the necessary parties rule “would at times unfairly deny recovery to the party before the court, equity developed exceptions, among them one to cover situations where the parties are very numerous, and the court perceives, that it will be almost impossible to bring them all before the court; or where the question is of general interest, and a few may sue for the benefit of the whole; or where the parties form a part of a voluntary association for public or private purposes, and may be fairly supposed to represent the rights and interests of the whole.'” See: Ortiz, at 832-33. 

Put simply, as society revolutionized the common law was ill-equipped to handle the new claims that followed: “Common law models of litigation that envision one plaintiff sparring with one defendant were not designed to and cannot cope with harm experienced by huge numbers of geographically dispersed people.” See: In re Joint Eastern & Southern Dist. Asbestos Litigation, 129 B.R. 710, 803 (S.D.N.Y. 1991), judgment vacated, 982 F.2d 721 (2d Cir. 1992).

Originally, then, American courts followed the example of our British brethren, using their power in equity to avoid multiplicity of actions where numerous individuals sued a common defendant for the same legal wrong. In 1842, the Supreme Court promulgated Equity Rule 48, “officially recogniz[ing] representative suits where the parties were too numerous to be conveniently brought before the court, but refused to bind absent parties to any resulting judgments.” Asbestos Litigation, at 804. The Supreme Court explained this new rule as follows:

Where the parties interested in the suit are numerous, their rights and liabilities are so subject to change and fluctuation by death or otherwise, that it would not be possible, without very great inconvenience, to make all of them parties, and would oftentimes prevent the prosecution of the suit to a hearing. For convenience, therefore, and to prevent a failure of justice, a court of equity permits a portion of the parties in interest to represent the entire body, and the decree binds all of them the same as if all were before the court. The legal and equitable rights and liabilities of all being before the court by representation, and especially where the subject-matter of the suit is common to all, there can be very little danger but that the interest of all will be properly protected and maintained. See: Smith v. Swormstedt, 57 U.S. 288, 303 (1853)

It was not until 1912, some 70 years later, that Equity Rule 48 was rewritten, becoming Rule 38. The new rule maintained representative actions, but additionally allowed absent parties to be bound by judgments entered thereunder.

Finally, in 1938 Congress promulgated the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, finally bringing into life the class action device pursuant to the original version of Rule 23. However, it was not until 1966, just over 55 years ago, that the class action mechanism “gained its current shape in an innovative 1966 revision.” See: Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 613, 117 S.Ct. 2231 (1997). Thus, while it has its origins in equity, a class action is now a useful procedural litigation device that permits a small number of plaintiffs to represent and legally bind an entire class through a single lawsuit.

[Last updated in April of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]