Making Class Actions Work: The Untapped Potential of the Internet
43 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2009 Last revised: 26 Oct 2012
Date Written: 2008
Over twenty years ago, the Supreme Court recognized that in class action litigation, absent class members "must receive notice plus an opportunity to be heard and participate in the litigation, whether in person or through counsel." Although the absent class members' rights to receive notice and an opportunity to opt out are of vital importance, the ability to be heard and participate in the litigation are also important.
Despite the benefits of participation by absent class members, class action case law and commentary have focused more on maximizing efficiency than on protecting an individual class member's ability to participate in the litigation. Indeed, the Supreme Court itself has recognized that, within existing class action practice, absent class members normally do nothing. Instead of fostering true participation by absent class members, courts have accepted alternatives, finding that the rights of absent class members to receive notice and to opt out and the promise of adequate class counsel are sufficient surrogates for actual participation. In the past, these substitute mechanisms for true involvement, although inadequate, may have been understandable because of the logistical difficulties in permitting absent class members to participate in the same manner as litigants in traditional bilateral litigation.
Class action litigation inherently focuses on the claims of large numbers of people. That concept is captured explicitly in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a), which requires, as a prerequisite to class certification, that "the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable." And, although "impracticable" does not necessarily require large numbers, the requirement is usually fulfilled because of the large number of individuals involved.
Adjudicating the claims of large numbers of absent class members presents difficulties that do not exist in traditional bilateral litigation. In bilateral litigation, the parties have direct contact with their counsel and can obtain from them necessary information about the case and the litigation process in general. By contrast, class counsel have historically been unable to keep absent class members abreast of the progress of a specific class action case or to involve absent class members in litigation in any meaningful manner. Until recently, these difficulties have precluded meaningful involvement by most absent class members, to the detriment of the entire class action process.
The internet has become entrenched in the American way of life and provides a mechanism through which absent class members' right to participate meaningfully in class action litigation can be realized. Since September 2001, over half of the households in the United States have maintained internet access. Even this enormous number, however, represents only part of the picture, because it fails to account for individuals who have access to the internet at work or through other channels, such as public libraries. Taking into account all means of accessing the internet, as of March 31, 2007, the percentage of Americans over the age of twelve with internet access is between 70% and 78% of the population.
People not only have access to the internet; they use it. The average American internet user accesses the web ten times and visits approximately 24 to 26 different domains per week. Over the course of a week, the average American internet user spends more than ten hours on the internet, and this usage is on the rise. For instance, a 2007 study by the Newspaper Association of America indicates that 62.8 million people per month visited online newspaper websites in the fourth quarter of 2007. Comparing 2006 to 2005, the average unique audience for newspaper websites increased 22%. Increasingly, people are regularly visiting portal websites and websites with extensive search capabilities, such as MSN.com, Yahoo, and Google, to guide their internet browsing. The internet has clearly become a vital "communication, information, entertainment, and transaction tool."
This Article focuses on the capacity of the internet to foster true participation by absent class members. Part I of this Article examines how the internet is currently used in class action litigation. As the Article explains, although the internet has been used in some aspects of class action practice, that use has been limited and sporadic. Part II examines the full potential of the internet to increase absent class members' participation. It offers concrete proposals for integrating the internet into virtually every aspect of the class action process.
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