You Got a Class Action Suit Notice — Now What?
Does it pay to become part of the lawsuit?
Ever get one of those letters saying you’re part of a class action lawsuit? Many people toss them right in the recycling bin. But should you?
“What class actions do is allow ordinary citizens to generate great power by banding together and righting corporate wrongs,” said Ivan Abrams, a Tucson, Arizona attorney. Class action suits in the United States account for many of the victories won by civil rights activists, environmentalists and consumer groups, says Abrams.
But don't expect to get rich by opting in.
"Class-action suits rarely end with significant payouts to the little guys. In fact, in most cases only two sets of participants reap any real rewards: the attorneys and the named or represented plaintiffs," according to bankrate.com. Injured parties who are part of the "class" are not named.
In a recent class action suit, a major tech firm was charged with failing to notify smartphone customers of a software glitch that caused them to get hit with inordinately high data charges from their carrier. In theory, losing such a suit could cause tech behemoths to think twice before keeping mum on future glitches. The bad news is that you probably aren’t going to see a lot of cash if you were a victim — though you could get something.
Participating in class action lawsuits can be a bit like coupon-clipping. Websites list current class action suits with many payouts for unnamed participants in amounts ranging from $5 to $40. Some suits, however, yield higher payouts. Those involving home building, vehicles, stainless steel and concrete have had payouts ranging from $1,000 to $8,000. (Named participants may be awarded much more, even millions of dollars in some cases.)
So what should you do when you get a class action letter? In many cases, you don't need to do anything. You’ll be notified and reap the benefits (such as getting a check in the mail) if the case is won in court, according to Abrams. But read the letter carefully, he advises, because sometimes you need to “opt in” to take part. This usually involves filling out and mailing in a short claim form.
If your damages are greater than usual and you’d rather preserve your right to sue a company yourself, you may need to fill out an “opt out” form, according to Abrams.
Class action vs. arbitration
Class action suits may be a way to stop companies from "doing evil." But for better or worse, the suits may become less common. The sheer number of them, and the costs associated, has led to a backlash, according to a recent three-part series in The New York Times. In 1999, credit card companies began including in their cardmember agreements a provision that meant customers were signing away the right to sue — including through a class action suit — in favor of arbitration. (In arbitration, you settle your dispute outside of a court.) These days, even many doctors in private practice require patients to sign similar agreements.
“Corporations are fighting back by claiming that people can attain the same results through individual arbitration,” says Abrams. “That’s rarely true. And even when it is, individual lawsuits don’t give the corporation any motivation to change the practices that caused the injustice in the first place.”
Banning frivolous lawsuits sounds great in theory, Abrams acknowledges, but it’s usually not such a great deal for the consumer. A retired judge generally oversees the arbitration, and there’s no jury and no appeal of the arbitrator’s decision, he says.
The New York Times series cited a letter from attorney generals in 16 states to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warning that “unlawful business practices” could flourish with the proliferation of class-action bans. In October 2015, as a result of this complaint and others of a similar nature, the CFPB drafted a rule that stakes out a middle ground, allowing arbitration clauses provided that they do not prohibit filing a class action in court.
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To Abrams, who was part of a legal team that won class actions for steelworkers, female assembly line workers and coal miners, that’s a step in the right direction.
“The playing field is hardly level when it’s one of the largest corporations in the world being sued by Jane Doe,” said Abrams. “But in a class action, it’s a fair fight. Jane Doe has a team of lawyers who are adept and equal in power and ability to the lawyers of the corporation.”
It's your call
When you get that next letter in the mail, it’s up to you to make a judgment call. You can opt out if you think the lawsuit is frivolous. Or you can choose to take on a fight for the little guy — and if you do, the next letter you receive just might contain a check.