Can I Bring a Class-Action Lawsuit for Civil Rights Violations?

Fighting For Important Causes In State And Federal Courts

When government entities, schools, and businesses violate civil rights, those violations can affect a lot of people at once.  Class-action lawsuits are specifically designed to help many people bring a complaint together on behalf of themselves and others like them to get justice for widespread issues – but can these lawsuits be used to address civil rights issues?

Generally speaking, civil rights actions can be handled as class-action lawsuits.  In fact, many historical and important civil rights lawsuits have been class-action cases, including Brown v. Board of Education.  Nonetheless, there are some limitations on these kinds of claims.

For help with your potential discrimination or civil rights lawsuit, call The Law Office of Andrew Shubin’s civil rights attorneys at (814) 826-3586.

Filing a Class-Action Lawsuit for Civil Rights Issues

A civil rights lawsuit often comes in a few forms.  First, the lawsuit might be filed directly against a company, business, college, university, or other entity for discrimination.  For example, you can sue your employer for racial discrimination or sue your college for sex discrimination.  Alternatively, lawsuits are brought against the government under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (called “1983 lawsuits”) for violation of your civil rights.  For example, the family of a person murdered by the police can seek damages by suing the police officers and the city.  There are often some complex steps involved requiring you to report civil rights violations to the government before filing these lawsuits, but these are the two basic kinds of lawsuits filed for civil rights violations.

Our civil rights attorneys can help you turn any of these into a class-action lawsuit if the right requirements are met.  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 governs class-action lawsuits and the requirements that have to be met to file a class-action case.  Essentially, class-action cases are different than a few people who faced a similar issue suing together.  Instead, class actions are filed when the issue affects many people in similar, repeat situations, who are better represented as a class.  In these kinds of cases, it is fair to have those who do come forward “represent” the whole class.

Rule 23 also creates some specific procedural steps that need to be taken to certify the class and bring the case as a class action.

How Class-Action Civil Rights Claims Can Help Victims of Rights Violations and Discrimination

When people get together and vindicate their rights together as a group, they can be much stronger than when seeking individual justice.  This comes down to how difficult it is to show patterns and how difficult it is to affect change when there is not much money in it for you as an individual.

Pattern or Practice Evidence

In many cases, it is difficult to show that there is widespread discrimination without bringing forward many people who have faced the same kinds of discrimination over and over again.  In many discrimination cases, you must show that it was a “pattern or practice” of the defendant to discriminate the way that they did.

For example, there have been multiple class-action lawsuits against big employers like Walmart, alleging that they discriminated against Black employees or female employees or whatever other class the case was brought on behalf of.  Getting together in this way helps show that an employer did not discriminate once or twice but that it was truly part of their general practice.

If you have strong evidence of a pattern or practice, it can also weigh against individual cases where someone was not discriminated against.  For example, it could seem impossible to sue a company with a Black CEO for racial discrimination.  Nonetheless, if the rest of the board and managers and higher-ups are all white, and there is otherwise a pattern or practice of failing to promote Black workers, then the claim of discrimination holds up even in the face of a few exceptions.


Getting together the funds to present a case can also be difficult on an individual basis.  In many cases, widespread discrimination creates small harms to many people, which results in a huge harm to society.  For example, a nationwide employer like Walmart could be accused of failing to promote female employees, but this might result in only a few thousand dollars in damages for each plaintiff.

Each individual might not be able to hire a lawyer and bring a lawsuit against a financial giant like Walmart to ultimately win only a few thousand dollars.  A case like this will likely cost more to litigate than the winnings would cover.  However, thousands of women getting together and filing a class action could result in a case worth billions of dollars.  That is the kind of case any law firm with the skills and experience to bring the case would be proud to present.  It would also distribute the winnings to all of the members of the class, defraying the costs and ensuring that everyone gets some amount of damages.

Restrictions on Class-Action Lawsuits for Discrimination and Civil Rights Violations

There are a few restrictions and hurdles that might get in the way of lawsuits against employers, universities, and government agencies for discrimination and civil rights violations.  The following are just some examples of these:

Mandatory Arbitration Clauses

Sometimes discrimination cases are shut down by mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts.  These rules, once agreed to, require workers to bring claims against their employer through arbitration instead of an individual lawsuit, let alone a class action.  This can block workers from getting together as a class.

Denial of Class Status

In some cases, the court does not certify the class because the plaintiffs cannot show that their experiences and the facts of their individual situations were similar enough to satisfy Rule 23.  For example, in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes (2011), the Supreme Court dismissed the case saying that the class of women suing Walmart for discrimination did not have enough in common to show they faced the same discrimination.

Call Our Civil Rights Lawyers for Help

If you faced discrimination, call our civil rights attorneys at The Law Office of Andrew Shubin today at (814) 826-3586.


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