December 23, 2013

Can just anyone bring a class action on behalf of others?

By Anastasia P. Boden Attorney

Florence Pacleb sued Allstate Insurance for calling him on his cellphone in violation of anti-solitication laws.  Allstate offered to pay the damages Pacleb demanded and his attorney’s fees.  Most courts hold that once a defendant offers to fully satisfy a plaintiff’s claims, the plaintiff’s claims become moot, meaning that there is no longer a controversy for the court to decide because the defendant has given up.  The plaintiff has essentially won, and can’t expect to get anything more from the court.  But Pacleb alleged that even if his own claims had become moot, he still had an interest in filing a class action lawsuit.  The district court agreed.

We think that’s wrong.  In a brief filed today in the Ninth Circuit, PLF argues that an individual can’t file a class action lawsuit unless he has a personal stake in the underlying claim.  If Pacleb could file a class action lawsuit under these circumstances, then why not anyone else?  Why not a law professor who is academically interested in the case, or an attorney who is interested in the fees?

We argue that if a plaintiff were not required to have an independent injury before filing a class action lawsuit, plaintiffs would be tripping over themselves to file class action lawsuits.  This is particularly problematic given that class action litigation is subject to abuse. Absent class members are not in court to defend themselves from abusive practices by the attorneys and lead plaintiffs—like approving settlements that are bad for the class but handsomely reward the lawyers and class representative.  Only when the plaintiff has an independent interest of his own is it certain he will protect the interests of those absent class members.

Further, class action certification often has a coercive effect on defendants.  Because in class action cases the stakes are so high, defendants almost always settle after a class is certified—notwithstanding the merits of the underlying claim.  We argue that courts must ensure that only those people who have their own stake in the claim can bring a class action when so much is at stake.

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