Could My Workplace Discrimination Claim Become a Class Action?

Probably not, but you may still have a case

Though Lindsay Halm has been a lawyer for more than a decade, she’s only ever had one employment discrimination case lead to a class action.

“I have done countless class actions and countless individual discrimination claims, but nary the twain shall meet,” says the Seattle attorney. “That doesn't mean that there aren't claims to be had—just that with the rigors of getting a class certified, it's rarer that you're going to have the kind of company policy that's ripe for a class action.”

 As with any potential workplace discrimination case, if you suspect you’re being discriminated against at work, it’s best to reach out to an attorney right away—regardless if others are being targeted in the same manner. Federally, protected classes include race, religion, sex, national origin, age and disability. Seattle has additional protections for other classes, such as political affiliation.

“It doesn't matter as much to an individual worker whether she's got a class action or an individual claim. Her claim is her claim, and she should go seek legal advice,” says Halm. “The attorney should be able to spot whether there are enough workers impacted by the practice and whether it's a kind of practice that can be challenged on a class-wide basis.”

In order for your discrimination case to be consolidated into a class action, it has to affect more than 40 employees. Halm notes that, in Washington, anyone in the class would have to have been affected by the discriminating practice within three years of when you brought your suit—even if they’re no longer working for the employer.

“As long as everybody has been impacted by that particular company policy during the limitations period, they would be a member of the class,” she says. “Maybe you have somebody in your class who hasn't worked at a company for two and a half years—maybe they quit, or were fired. They still have a ripe claim.”

Halm uses a wage discrimination example to illustrate how a potential claim could get consolidated into a class action:

“A person identifies they haven't been paid overtime. They can file a lawsuit, and that person and their attorneys can determine whether or not the practice affected other workers. Assuming it does, they can go to the court and say, ‘This is a practice this company has been perpetrating for years. We have a list of all the workers that the defendant has produced, and their payroll records, showing that they haven't been paid overtime. Therefore, we want this case to move forward as a class action,’” she says.

If the court agrees, potential Washington class members will be notified—most likely by mail. There also may be alerts on the radio, through social media or other “less-traditional means.”

According to Halm, certain practices—like pay practices—can be more cut-and-dry than other types of discrimination. “Class actions are really well-suited when you've got kind of a uniform practice that's carried out against lots of workers,” she says. “The idea is you can get a lot of efficiencies by looking at that policy one time, litigating whether it was fair or discriminatory—or whether it complied with the wage laws—and then helping all those workers out when you get a favorable ruling.”

Class action attorneys take cases on a contingency fee basis, meaning they don’t get paid unless they win or settle the case. Though most workplace claims do settle, Halm adds that cost and rewards vary from case to case.

“If you are singled out in a workplace on account of a protected class, and you suffer an adverse employment action—like you get fired or demoted—you, generally speaking, are entitled to wage loss and emotional distress damages under Washington law,” she says. “The nice thing is that the worker that’s harmed by a particular company policy doesn't have to know in advance whether she has a class action or not. She just has to know she's been harmed.”

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