Letter to Congress Opposing the Class Action Fairness Act

Categories: Advocacy Letter

Recipient: U.S. Senate

Dear Member of Congress:

We write to express the opposition of the civil rights community to H.1115, the Class Action Fairness Act of 2003, a bill that would substantially alter the constitutional distribution of judicial power. If passed, this bill would: remove most state law class actions into federal court; clog the federal courts with state law cases and make it more difficult to have federal civil rights cases heard; deter people from bringing class actions; and impose barriers and burdens on settlement of class actions.

Class actions are essential to the enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws. They are often the only means by which individuals can challenge and obtain relief from systemic discrimination. Indeed, federal class actions were designed to accommodate, and have served as a primary vehicle for, civil rights litigation seeking broad equitable relief.

There are several reasons why the civil rights community is troubled by this particular legislation:


  • This bill will overburden and create further unnecessary delay in our federal courts. This bill will amend federal law to extend federal jurisdiction to most state class actions, overloading federal courts and delaying the resolution of all cases in federal court, including a majority of civil rights claims. These provisions will be particularly damaging in cases where civil rights plaintiffs are seeking immediate injunctive relief to prohibit discriminatory practices of a defendant.

  • The bill will turn the current federal judiciary into an ineffectual and cumbersome mechanism by which plaintiffs may seek access to justice. We strongly believe that H.1115 is an unnecessary attempt to impose federal judicial regulation on matters of law clearly committed to the states under our Constitution. Indeed, the determination of state tort, contract and consumer cases is, unequivocally, not the responsibility of the federal judiciary under the Constitution. The imposition of such substantial new responsibilities on the federal courts will further impair the ability of those courts to carry out the essential functions they are intended to serve under the Constitution – the determination of matters involving federal interests, rights and responsibilities. In short, true access to the federal courts and to the class action device to secure justice in matters where federal issues are at stake would be severely curtailed by enactment of this legislation.

  • The bill will discourage people from bringing class actions by prohibiting settlements that provide named plaintiffs full relief for their claims. Now, for example, a named plaintiff who sues an employer can receive a full award of back pay, and in a proper case, obtain an order placing him or her in the job denied because of discrimination, while also affording all members of the class the opportunity to share in available relief. However, under the guise of protecting class members, the proposed bill prohibits courts from approving settlements that allow a greater share of relief to a class representative than all members of the class. If the price of trying to protect others is the loss of the full measure of individual relief and entitlement only to the same relief as those who never took any action to challenge the employer, individuals will be deterred from becoming a class representative. Thus, this provision would hinder, rather than reform, civil rights class actions.

  • The bill will impose new, burdensome delay tactics for all class actions by automatically allowing a defendant to appeal any class certification in federal court and staying all the proceedings while the appeal is pending. It seeks to impose automatic appeal provisions that are both unfair and unnecessary and will only serve to further delay the settlement of class actions. Specifically, the proposed bill would allow defendants, as a matter of right, the ability to appeal the decision of the federal court to certify a class action under Rule 23. It goes a step beyond and allows the court to stay the case during the entire time that the appeal is pending, a delay that could mean years between the certification and the beginning of discovery. This stalling tactic is outrageous and unnecessary, considering that there is already a provision for permissive appeals where defendants believe there is an error in certification. Additionally, these appeals are granted far more often than they are denied. For example, between 1998 and 2003, almost 80 percent of petitions filed were granted. H.R. 1115’s provision for automatic appeal plus mandatory stay of proceedings is a transparent attempt to stop action in all class action cases. This will undermine the ability of plaintiff classes in civil rights class actions to continue these difficult, expensive, and complex challenges to discriminatory policies and practices. These additional, substantial, and unnecessary appeals requirements and built-in delays are not a matter of due process, but are overly burdensome and improperly assume that every class certification needs to be re-certified by the federal appellate courts.

For the reasons stated above, the proposed Class Action Fairness Act of 2003 would discourage civil rights class actions, impose substantial barriers to settling class actions, and render federal courts unable to provide swift and effective administration of justice. The bill also compromises delicate federal/state relations by questioning the competency of the state judiciary and overburdening our already overworked federal courts. In short, we believe the impact of this legislation will be profound, and will result in new and substantial limitations on access to the courts for victims of discrimination. We, therefore, urge you to reject this harmful legislation. Thank you.


Sincerely,

Alliance for Justice
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
National Partnership for Women and Families
National Women’s Law Center
People For the American Way
Women Employed