Why Class Definitions Matter

Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and class definitions. Every class action complaint contains a proposed class definition. It is an indispensable piece of the landscape, just like the case caption, the request for relief and the signature block. And because it is always present, it is also easy to overlook. Yet the class definition can be the key to unlocking the mysteries of class certification, and may be the most important element of the initial pleading.

On one level, the class definition carries significant practical implications. It tells us who should receive notice of the class action and who will be bound by the judgment. For cases that settle, it tells us who may participate in the settlement. For these reasons, class definitions, as much as any other terms of a complaint, decision or settlement, circumscribe the rights of absent parties – which, after all, is what representative litigation is supposed to be all about.

On another level, however, class definitions can make or break a motion for class certification. Sometimes they do so because, when examined critically, they reveal why a proposed class cannot satisfy the certification requirements of Rule 23. One test of whether a plaintiff can meet his burden under Rule 23 is whether a problem with one class definition can be fixed by substituting a different class definition in the same case. If not, there may be an underlying issue with one or more of the Rule 23 requirements. In such a case, the class definition is not, as some would claim, being wrongfully exploited by those who would limit the availability of the class action device. Rather, it is a lens that can bring into focus the flaws that make the case unsuitable for class treatment no matter how the class is defined.

For example, a plaintiff in a wage and hour case might propose the following class definition:

All persons who worked as hourly employees of XYZ Corporation from 2008 to the present.

The beauty of this proposed definition lies in its simplicity. In most cases, membership in the class can readily be ascertained from the defendant's business records. Those records will permit the preparation of a class list, complete with names and current and last-known addresses, which a notice administrator can use in mailing notice to all class members. By eliminating guesswork and uncertainty, the proposed definition will result in ease of administration, one facet of establishing that a class action is manageable and, hence, superior.

But when one examines the class definition in the light of the claims being advanced, the cracks in the picture emerge. A typical case might allege that XYZ Corporation forces its employees to work through their meal periods and rest breaks. Often, the plaintiffs will not claim, and would not be able to prove, that every employee has been denied his or her breaks. Part of the company's defense may be that, while there appear to be instances of individual employees being forced to skip their breaks, there are also many employees who received all of their breaks, or if they missed them, chose to skip them for any of a variety of personal reasons (such as wanting to leave work early). If there is evidence that some employees were forced to skip breaks, while other employees received all of their breaks, and still others missed breaks only by their own choosing, the class of all employees is overly broad: it includes people who have claims against XYZ and others who do not.

Courts have held that an overly broad class cannot be certified. See, e.g., Oshana v. Coca-Cola Co., 472 F.3d 506 (7th Cir. 2006). There are both legal and practical reasons for this rule. Legally, when a class includes members who have not been injured by the defendant's alleged conduct and therefore have no claim, there is a problem with standing. In federal court, this problem may be considered to be of constitutional proportions – there is no case or controversy for those class members for purposes of Article III standing. State courts may recognize the same problem, although...

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