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Why do Class Actions Need to be Certified?

Before a class action lawsuit can proceed, a class must be certified. The certification process ensures that the plaintiffs have enough similarities to proceed with litigation against the named defendant as part of one larger case.

About Class Actions
A typical civil damages lawsuit involves a single plaintiff who has been injured by one or more defendants to such a degree that the damages justify the time and expense of litigation. Class action lawsuits typically present the opposite scenario: multiple plaintiffs that are slightly injured by a single defendant, and the individual damages each plaintiff suffers are often too low to justify separate lawsuits.

Class action lawsuits allow these plaintiffs to band together and litigate their claims in a single forum. If a judgment is granted, the plaintiffs and their attorneys split the proceeds. Rather than having every plaintiff present his or her case, a representative plaintiff serves as the spokesperson for the class. The representative plaintiff is the one who files the lawsuit on behalf of all the members of the class.

Class Certification
Before a lawsuit can proceed as a class action, a court must certify the class. Certification has nothing to do with the merits of the case itself- it is simply a matter of determining whether there are enough similarities amongst the various plaintiffs that justify joining them together. Thus, in this context, certification means that the court has determined that a class action is the best option to manage the multiple claims.

Certification Requirements
Although individual court rules vary to a certain degree, in most cases to be certified as a class action, the following requirements must be met:

Number: There must be so many plaintiffs with similar claims against the same defendant that it would not be practical for them to each file an individual lawsuit. The minimum number is 30 or more, but most class action lawsuits have hundreds or even thousands of plaintiffs. \
Common Questions: To ensure efficient handling of individual claims, each plaintiff’s claim must must have similar questions of law or fact as those of the other plaintiffs in the class.
Typical Claims: The representative plaintiff must have claims or defenses that are typical of the class. In other words, the representative plaintiff’s claim should be so similar to the claims of the other members of the class, that litigating the representative plaintiff’s case will sufficiently decide the cases of the absent class members.
Protection of Interests: The representative plaintiff and the attorney seeking to represent the class must be able to fairly and adequately protect the interests of all class members. In making this determination, courts look to the lawyer’s competence, as well as that of the representative plaintiff.
In addition to the basic requirements summarized above, courts may also consider additional criteria when pondering the issue of class certification. For example, the class needs to be defined clearly enough so that it can be determined which individuals are or are not members of the class. Additionally, there may be a requirement for judicial efficiency, meaning that the class action is the most efficient way to resolve the claims.

If the court certifies the class, the case then moves to pre-trial procedures as a class action. If a court determines that the circumstances do not justify certification, the case is then tried as an individual claim. Consequently, although certification is not a decision on the merits, from a class action attorney’s perspective, a case is basically won or lost at the certification stage. The attorney either has a case with thousands of clients and millions of dollars in potential damages, or an individual lawsuit worth a few thousand dollars, which is why certification is such a crucial issue in class action cases.

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