A vote is due next week on an interesting bill proposed by Representative Bob Goodlatte. The Virginia Republican is bringing back an idea he failed to push through Congress last year which would tighten the controls on class-action lawsuits. Detractors inside government and from without are deriding H.R. 985, the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017, as tribute to big business and punishment for victims of corporate fraud and abuse.
If passed, the Act would limit what kinds of litigation could be considered class action. Plaintiffs and their lawyers would have to jump through multiple hoops before even having an initial hearing.
Attorneys would have to convince judges of the merits of their class action claim. While that might sound appealing on the surface, the limitations Goodlatte and his goons are writing clearly favor corporate interests over those of their constituents.
For instance, under H.R. 985, class action lawsuits cannot be pursued if the plaintiffs have not all suffered very similar injuries of the same nature and scope. Special restrictions would be emplaced on the relationship lawyers could have with their clients, essentially interfering in the ability of state bar associations to dictate what’s appropriate and what’s not. An advantage would be given to corporate defendants, who would be able to retain their longstanding and specialized counsel in court. Individuals or groups of individuals filing more than one class action lawsuit – such as in antitrust litigation or pension-related suits – would be held back by Goodlatte’s act.
The Hill’s analysis of the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act spells out another worrying requirement: that plaintiffs be able to demonstrate a mechanism for identifying each class member, “an impossible task in many consumer class actions, and unnecessary for achieving justice.” Meanwhile, The Huffington Post and Reuters both report that the ironically named act had its language taken directly from the mouths of business lobbyists.
According to the latter publication, Goodlatte’s act would “roll back protections for defrauded investors, cheated consumers, people whose privacy has been violated, small businesses harmed by price fixing, workers cheated by wage theft, and pretty much anyone harmed in any way by corporations that break the law.”
Class action lawsuits, as they exist now, don’t have any easy time making their way through courts. Reformers and strict-interpreting judges tend to err on the side of caution when allowing litigation to proceed, adhering to rules which already require plaintiffs to prove the veracity of their claims.
Moreover, class action litigation is a valuable tool for Americans of all backgrounds and stripes to recover financially after being wronged. They allow senior citizens to take on neglectful nursing homes and predatory pharmaceutical companies and for investors to recover losses after falling victim to Ponzi schemes and trading fraud.
Goodlatte did introduce a few good ideas in his bill which would increase accountability for lawyers specializing in repeat class action lawsuits.
However, he did little to fall in line with the recent Republican mantra of reducing regulations and tossing away federal rules. Rather than trying to extend a helping hand to the ordinary Americans who voted him into office, he’s offered an olive branch to the billion-dollar companies now sitting comfortably in the Cabinet.