Class Actions 101 : Introduction
Editor’s Note: What follows is the first post in a series designed to lay out the basics of class action litigation while exploring recent trends.
Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure was largely revised in 1966, and in some ways, can be said to reflect that period of time, especially as the case law developed in the midst of the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement and “consumerism” of the time. All of these movements at their base questioned the efficacy of the legislature to protect the weak and disenfranchised and thus led to a turn to the courts for help. If the legislature were viewed as moving too slowly or not all in giving the disaffected a meaningful voice, the battles would take place in the courts. The Dalkon Shield, Breast Implant, Asbestos and Agent Orange class actions, as well as the numerous school desegregation class actions typify the sorts of cases that formed class action law in the early years, as women, workers, soldiers and African Americans looked to the courts for fair treatment.
The nature of class action litigation began to change, as more and more cases seemed to be brought by a burgeoning plaintiffs’ bar for issues that were less socially important, almost frivolous. Class actions became more lawyer-driven, and fees for plaintiffs’ lawyers became a hot topic of discussion as class members were often viewed as getting very little as their lawyers grew rich. Notably, among the more recent 2002 amendments to Rule 23, are rules designed to evaluate not only the class action plaintiff lawyers, but the settlements they may reach.
Just as important as understanding the context of Rule 23, is understanding that class action law was understood and continues to be understood as a means of both efficiency and fairness. Some believed it would be efficient for a defendant corporation only to have to defend itself in one suit against a mass of people. Others saw it as leveling the playing field for people to join together against Corporate America.
At bottom, Rule 23 measures efficiency and fairness, for absent class members and defendants, which we will explore in the next post…