How does a ‘private attorney general’ action differ from a class action?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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A “private attorney general” action is generally much simpler to pursue than a class action, because it does not require class certification or notice to absent parties. A “private attorney general” action can be much more limited than a class action, because the Unfair Competition Act (also “Unfair Competition Law”) allows a more limited range of remedies. For instance, instead of monetary damages as in a class action, fines are collected under the Unfair Competition Act. These fines must be split by the employees and the State of California Labor and Workforce Development Agency, with 75 percent going to the state agency.

Understanding a Private Attorney General Action and Class Action

A private attorney general action became an option when California passed the Private Attorney General Act of 2004. This Act gave private citizens the right to sue for a variety of different labor code violations that previously only state agencies could sue for. Such violations include unpaid overtime, fees for bounced checks, and various other labor code violations. When an employee or group of employees sue under the private attorney general rules, they are entitled to collect civil fines, but only get to keep 25 percent of them. 

A class action, on the other hand, involves plaintiffs filing a civil suit because they have all endured a similar legal wrong. The class of plaintiffs must all be certified to have a similar enough claim. There will be a lead plaintiff or group of plaintiff’s appointed and when the settlement or court verdict comes in, the money will be divided among the plaintiffs and attorneys who managed the case. These civil damages awarded in the class action case do not need to be shared with the Labor and Workforce Development Agency. 

Getting Help

For assistance in determining whether you should bring a class action or a private attorney general action, you should consult with an attorney. Your lawyer can explain the class action process, unfair competition law, and private attorney general action in detail. An attorney can also discuss options and help you decide what the best course of action is in the class action. 


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