A "class action" is a lawsuit brought by one or more claimants as representatives for an entire group of claimants who have been affected by a common violation but who do not need to participate in the lawsuit in order to be awarded a recovery. A class action suit may occur when many different people combine their similar complaints. This saves court time and allows a single judge to hear all the concerns at the same time, and come to one settlement or resolution for all parties. This process creates a procedure for redressing a relatively small claim that might otherwise be too costly to litigate on an individual basis.
The courts closely monitor class action cases. A case may not proceed on a class basis until the court certifies that it meets the requirements of a class action. When a trial court certifies a case as a class action, there is no necessity to "join" that Class. A class member is automatically a member of the certified Class, unless that member elects to exclude themselves or "opt out" of the Class. No resolution is final without court approval, including any award of attorney's fees.
A claim may be maintained as a class action under California law when the question is one of a common or general interest, of many persons, or when the parties are numerous, and it is impracticable to bring them all before the court. There must be an "ascertainable class," which means class members can be clearly defined and identified. This allows a court to provide notice of the class action to all potentially affected. There must also be a "community of interest" in the subject matter of the action, including predominant common questions of law or fact, class representatives with claims or defenses typical of the class, and class representatives and competent class counsel who can adequately represent the class.
For example, failure to pay overtime or other wage and hour violations rarely impact only a single worker. One employee can bring an action against an employer as the representative of every similarly-situated employee suffering the same treatment, including different job classifications.
In order to fairly compensate individuals to bring on these types of class actions, the Courts have also allowed incentive pay to the representative plaintiffs to compensate them for their time and effort in bringing the class action for the benefit of the class member where the class action is won. These awards can range from nominal amounts to tens of thousands of dollars. Lawyers who represent a class for money damages or restitution are generally paid out of the recovery. Attorney's fees and costs of litigation are not paid up front by claimants and only come out of any recovery.