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Limiting Your Civil Rights: H.R. 985 Passes the House, Awaits Senate Vote

As we await voting from the House on H.R. 1215, the bill that would limit your right to non-economic damages in excess of $250,000 for a medical malpractice lawsuit, we are obviously not thrilled to report that H.R. 985, another bill that also restricts civil rights, has been approved by the House.

H.R. 985, otherwise known as the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017, attempts to severely limit the ability to file a class action lawsuit against corporations that have harmed or discriminated against Americans. Class action lawsuits are those that involve multiple plaintiffs with similar complaints against the same institution. An endless list of well-known class action lawsuits exist, many of which have changed the course of American history. For example, Brown v. Board of Ed., Roe v. Wade, Enron, and PG&E (famous for being the largest direct class action lawsuit in history and the inspiration for the film ‘Erin Brockovich’).

The bill has caused a stir among attorneys, past victims of corporate greed and negligence, and civil rights groups and advocates. It angered the American Bar Association enough to come out and state that this legislation requires a “nearly insurmountable burden for people who have suffered a personal injury or economic loss at the hands of large institutions with vast resources, effectively barring them from bringing class actions.”

Protecting Big Business Comes at Your Expense
One of the biggest takeaways from the bill is that those who have been injured or harmed as a result of negligence or unfair policies at an institution would have to prove nearly identical injuries and circumstances in order to band together to file a class action. This would assume that all parties suffered nearly identical injuries or harm as a result of the same action. This one provision alone is enough to effectively knock out most class actions.

The second largest change included in the bill is language that addresses the timeline of how attorneys are paid. When considering legal action, especially cases of wage, gender, or race discrimination, oftentimes affording an attorney is the largest obstacle to seeking justice. Many law firms (including Levin & Perconti) and legal clinics represent plaintiffs in class actions on a fee agreement that seeks no payment unless the plaintiffs recover a settlement. This ensure that attorneys vigorously fight for their clients, while sparing the client from having to front money for attorney fees. The problem that would arise is that H.R. 985 would require all plaintiffs to receive their settlement before attorneys are paid. Considering that many class actions take years to litigate and that firms and clinics are fronting time and resources without payment, attorneys may begin to shy away from class actions, leaving victims of corporate fraud, negligence and discrimination without anywhere to turn.

H.R. 985 passed the House last Thursday, March 9th. An upcoming Senate vote is expected within the next few weeks and we will be sure to update you once Senate voting is completed.