New York Employment Lawyer
Together with his co-counsel Scott Lucas, Esq., New York employment attorney Steven Mitchell Sack has litigated matters to protect the rights of employees and workers from a variety of wage and hour abuses, including:
- Failure to pay workers for all hours worked
- Failure to pay workers overtime
- Failure to pay workers earned tips and gratuities
- Failure to pay workers social security and withholding taxes on their wages
- Failure to pay female workers equal pay
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Class Action Lawsuits
Class action lawsuits are lawsuits filed by one or a few individual plaintiffs in state or federal court on behalf of themselves and many other people with similar claims. They are typically used when individual suits are too numerous or expensive to try separately and affect a large number of people. For example, hundreds of people who suffer alleged employment discrimination, including sexual harassment and wage and hour violations are now pursuing their job rights through class action lawsuits. Class action lawsuits are also available to challenge a policy or interpretation of a statute or regulation, such as in a Medicaid case.
Cases are commenced by individuals called class representatives (also called named plaintiffs) who retain lawyers to represent them and the class. These lawyers are usually paid a contingency fee ranging from five to 30 percent of the settlement amount when a settlement or judgment is obtained. Attorney fees are approved by the judge presiding over the class action lawsuit and the remaining funds are divided up among the class members.
Not all cases are allowed to proceed as class actions. After the lawsuit is commenced, a judge will decide whether to approve the case as a class action. Generally, to be allowed to proceed as a class action lawsuit:
1. The class of people must be a clearly definable group.
2. People in the class must have suffered similar harm.
3. Most members must be identified and be able to be contacted.
4. Members of the class must receive the same fair treatment they would get if they brought individual lawsuits.
When these factors are present, a judge may give the group legal status to conduct their suit as a class action. Such a ruling is usually a victory for the plaintiff’s lawyer because class action cases are a very efficient way for lawyers with limited resources to obtain relief for a large number of clients or potential clients.
Also, class action lawsuits save the court and the parties valuable time and money because most members of the class usually share common questions of fact or law so interrogatories, depositions, and other pretrial discovery devices for each individual party is not required.
From the defendant’s perspective, class actions are expensive to defend. One way to try to knock one off at a low cost is to seek summary judgment before the suit is certified as a class action. However, many judges will not dismiss the class action at an early stage to avoid prejudicing the interests of the putative class members.
After a class action lawsuit is approved, the presiding judge will determine the most effective way to notify similarly situated individuals about the existence of the lawsuit and how they can join the action. This often involves sending a letter to thousands of potential litigants or posting details about the case in local, regional or national newspapers and magazines. The judge will attempt to ensure that the best interests of all the members of the class have been adequately represented by the parties who filed the suit and their lawyers. The plaintiff’s lawyer may also seek a summary judgment ruling after certification of the class, which, if successful, will spare the plaintiffs the trial expense while obtaining class wide remedies. Such a motion is aggressively contested by the defendant’s lawyer.
If the motion is not granted (which is generally the case), the discovery phase of the lawsuit begins. After it is completed (usually several years later), the judge may approve a settlement and oversee the distribution of the money to all registered members of the class and those who can be found. The same process occurs if money is awarded by a judge or jury after a trial. Courts look with favor on the voluntary resolution of class action litigation through settlement. No case brought and certified as a class action may be settled or compromised without court approval.
The approval process generally involves several steps: preliminary approval of the proposed settlement and plan of distribution to the class members; approval of the form of notice and dissemination of the notice of the proposed settlement to all class members; and a fairness hearing at which class members may be heard regarding the adequacy of the settlement amount, the method of distribution, and the amount of attorney fees. It is the judge’s responsibility to approve the terms of the settlement and contents of the notice so members of the class who receive it can understand their rights, options and obligations.
The benefit of a class action lawsuit is that claims may be asserted on behalf of absent parties. After you receive notice of the class action (sometimes long after the case is filed) you can join or opt out. If you join, your claims are treated like those of everyone else in the class, and any judgment or release in the lawsuit binds you. Once you elect to stay in, you simply wait until the case is resolved to get what everyone else gets. If, on the other hand, you want to pursue your claim on your own you can opt out of the class, receive none of the benefits of the class action, and are not bound by any decision.
While class action procedures differ in state and federal courts, the reality is that they often provide the only means for hundreds of claimants to effectively litigate their overtime or discrimination claims by providing for pooled litigation resources and greater settlement leverage. If you have a small claim, the time and expense of litigation is often not worth the trouble, so a class action may be the best way to receive payment for your injuries or financial damages. It is also effective if a defendant is obligated to set aside money to pay claims while it is still financially solvent and you believe it may file for bankruptcy or have no assets to pay a private judgment later on.
But if you incurred significant damages which the defendant has the financial means to pay, or aren’t offered an adequate financial recovery, think twice before agreeing to join the class or accept the settlement offer as a class member. Speak to a lawyer to evaluate whether to participate in or opt out of a class action lawsuit. Always obtain sound legal advice because you may be entitled to far more money by opting out of the class. In addition to notification problems and not understanding the terms or ramifications of the settlement, common criticisms of class action settlements arise over excessive legal fees, insufficient payouts to claimants, and settlements that sharply limit recovery for future claims. Be aware of this and act accordingly.
STRATEGY: If you receive a notice in the mail describing a class action that might affect you, or if you see an advertisement in a magazine concerning a suit, follow the directions in the notice and investigate the matter. Usually an e-mail address or telephone number is listed. At some point you will be asked to submit proof of your claim, and a court will review it. If you fit into the certified class and the group bringing the lawsuit wins, you should receive a portion of the amount awarded or benefit in some way from its success.
If you belong to a class and the lawsuit or settlement is successful, read the notice carefully. Contact the judge’s law clerk for more information if you’re unsure what you will receive. Question ambiguous language you don’t understand. Get legal advice if you don’t wish to accept the settlement or desire to opt out of the class and file your own lawsuit.