The Class Action Fairness Act of 2003

Categories: Advocacy Letter

Recipient: U.S. Senate

OPPOSE THE CLASS ACTION FAIRNESS ACT OF 2003:
It Would Impose New and Substantial Limitations on Access to Courts for Victims of Discrimination


Dear Senator:

We, the 42 undersigned civil rights organizations, write to express the opposition of the civil rights community to S. 274, 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 inevitably delaying the resolution of all cases in federal court, including many civil rights claims. The effect of 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 burden the federal judiciary, rendering it a less effectual mechanism by which plaintiffs may seek access to justice. We strongly believe that S. 274 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 law 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 could 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 language of the proposed bill prohibits courts from approving settlements that “provide[] for the payment of a greater share of the award to a class representative . . . than that awarded to the other class members.” This language is susceptible to the interpretation that it prevents the award of positions or “rightful place” seniority to class representatives where the number of vacancies for which class members were prevented from competing by discrimination is less than the total number of class members. If the price of trying to protect others is the loss of the full measure of individual relief, individuals will be deterred from becoming a class representative. Thus, this provision would hinder, rather than reform, civil rights class actions.


  • The bill could impose new, burdensome, and unnecessary requirements on litigants and the federal courts. It seeks to impose inordinately difficult and costly notice requirements, which will needlessly complicate and delay the settlement of class actions. Specifically, the proposed bill would require notice to federal and state officials based on the residence of all class members and would require a 120-day waiting period. These additional, substantial and costly notice requirements and built-in delays are not a matter of due process, but are overly burdensome and improperly assume that federal and state officials have both proper interest in, and a capacity to respond to, each and every class action.


For the reasons stated above, the proposed Class Action Fairness Act of 2003 could 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 would be profound, and would result in new and substantial limitations on access to the courts for victims of discrimination. We, therefore, urge you to reject this harmful legislation. If you have any questions, or need further information, please contact Nancy Zirkin, LCCR Deputy Director/Director of Public Policy, at 202/263-2880.

Sincerely,

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

ADA Watch/National Coalition for Disability Rights
AFL-CIO
Alliance for Justice
American Association of University Women
American Civil Liberties Union
American Federation of Government Employees
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee
Americans for Democratic Action
Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
Center for Women Policy Studies
Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund
Federally Employed Women
Jewish Labor Committee
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Ed
National Bar Association
National Center on Poverty Law
National Coalition on Black Civic Participation
National Committee on Pay Equity
National Employment Lawyers Association
National Fair Housing Alliance
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
National Legal Aid and Defender Association
National Organization for Women
National Partnership for Women and Families
National Women’s Law Center
NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund
People For the American Way
Project Equality
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
Sierra Club
UNITE!
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union
United Steelworkers of America
Women Employed