Employment Law Book with Gavel

Class Action Employment Lawsuits

Atkinson & Frampton, PLLC Feb. 22, 2023

The largest employment-based class action lawsuit of all time, Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., was filed on behalf of 1.5 million women employed by the store. Betty Dukes and five other employees initiated the class action on behalf of all women under Wal-Mart’s employ on grounds that the retailer discriminated based on sex in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, contending that men were paid more and promoted more often than women.  

The lawsuit, certified for class action in 2001, went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2011, where the class certification was thrown out because, the justices ruled, no proof had been offered that Wal-Mart as an institution practiced such discrimination at all of its outlets. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the opinion, said the lawsuit failed to show “some glue holding together the alleged reasons” for companywide discrimination.  

In other words, the Dukes class action lawsuit unraveled because its scope was too broad and the burden of proving companywide discrimination too daunting. In contrast, a sexual harassment class action lawsuit filed a couple of years before the Wal-Mart case led to a settlement of $3.5 million for 15 women. That suit was Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., a mining operation.  

A class action lawsuit is generally filed by a small group of people on behalf of a larger number. A class action is less complicated than filing individual lawsuits by all the aggrieved parties, but it can take longer to play out in the court system. The Dukes case took more than a decade, but in many other cases, matters are settled out of court, as in the Jensen lawsuit example. What both of these cases had in common is that they were employment-based.  

If you are looking to initiate a class action employment lawsuit or need to defend yourself against one in or around Charleston, West Virginia, contact our team at Atkinson & Frampton, PLLC.   

Our attorneys have represented clients in more than 100 cases from both sides of the courtroom, and we will help you aggressively pursue your case or defend you against any employment lawsuit filed against you. We proudly serve clients throughout the state, including Morgantown, Huntington, Beckley, Martinsburg, and Parkersburg, West Virginia. 

What Is an Employment Class Action? 

As the two examples above illustrate, an employment class action is based on discrimination against employees or violations of their civil or other rights, including harassment and retaliation.   

Employment lawsuits are generally based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which originally prohibited discrimination based on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, but subsequent laws and legal interpretations have greatly expanded the protected classes. Now protections extend to employees on the basis of age (40 and older), military or veteran status, pregnancy, disability, genetic history, and gender identity and sexual orientation.  

If a company in its hiring and/or employment practices discriminates on the basis of any of those protected characteristics, then it can be subject to employee actions, including individual and class action lawsuits. Class action lawsuits apply when the practice is widespread enough and affects a larger number of employees or job applicants. 

Getting a Lawsuit Certified as Class Action 

Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure establishes the criteria for a court to certify a lawsuit as a class action. The criteria are:  

  • The class is so numerous that “joinder of all members is impracticable.”  

  • There are questions about laws and facts that are common to all the class representatives. 

  • The claims or defenses of the class representatives are typical of the claims and defenses of all the class members. 

How a Class Action Lawsuit Proceeds 

A class action lawsuit proceeds like any civil action beginning with the discovery phase. This is the process of collecting and examining evidence from both sides, including oral testimony by the plaintiffs and defendants. The plaintiffs in a class action are the individuals or representatives who file the action.   

The court will also hold a pretrial hearing or at least entertain oral arguments on whether the class certification should be allowed. The defendant will also likely move for a summary judgment in their favor, meaning to get the case dismissed before it goes to trial. If that motion is denied, then the trial will proceed to hear the merits of the case.  

Because of the arguments over the certification and the discovery process involved in a class action, a class action lawsuit can take much longer than an individual lawsuit. Some class action lawsuits take a year or even two to complete if there is no out-of-court settlement. 

Damages Available 

If an employment class action lawsuit prevails in court, the members of the class will be entitled to damages, which could involve back pay, front pay, restoration of benefits, or even punitive damages. The role of the damages is to restore the employees to the place they would have been had it not been for the employer’s actions or inactions. 

Fight for Your Rights 

If you are facing discrimination at work that is widespread, you might well consider the potential for a class action lawsuit. On the other side, if your employees are launching a class action against you, you will need to seek legal representation for your business.   

In either case, contact the employment law attorneys at Atkinson & Frampton, PLLC, if you’re anywhere in West Virginia. We have the knowledge, experience, and resources to help you exercise and protect your rights whether you are a plaintiff or defendant.