Seyfarth Synopsis: The monetary value of the top workplace class action settlements skyrocketed in 2017. Though all-time highs in this category were reached in each of the past three years, this year’s Report found that 2017 saw decidedly higher settlements. The top ten settlements in employment-related class actions totaled $2.72 billion in 2017, an increase of over $970 million from $1.75 billion in 2016. In this blog, we give our readers an exclusive analysis of this important workplace trend.

As measured by the top ten largest case resolutions in various workplace class action categories, overall settlement numbers increased exponentially in 2017 as compared to 2016.

This continued the reversal of a trend that began with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart in 2011. By tightening Rule 23 standards and raising the bar for class certification, Wal-Mart made it more difficult for plaintiffs to certify class actions, and to convert their class action filings into substantial settlements.

The settlement statistics for 2017 underscore how the plaintiffs’ bar has successfully “found a way” around the impediments to transforming their case filings into large settlements on a class-wide basis. This also reflects a process whereby there has been a maturing of case architecture considerations, as plaintiffs’ lawyers have “re-booted” their strategic approaches to take account of Wal-Mart, and crafted refined class certification theories with better chances of success.

That phenomenon is still being played out, as well as manifesting itself in settlement dynamics.

Considering all types of workplace class actions, settlement numbers in 2017 totaled $2.72 billion, which increased significantly from 2016 when such settlements totaled $1.75 billion.

The 2017 figure also eclipsed the settlement numbers of 2015, which were then at the all-time high of $2.48 billion.

The following graphic shows this trend:

In terms of the story behind the numbers, the breakouts by types of workplace class action settlements are instructive.

In 2017, there was a slight downward trend for the value of wage & hour class action settlements, and significant increases across-the-board for resolutions of class actions involving employment discrimination, statutory workplace laws, and ERISA class actions, as well as governmental enforcement litigation.

This phenomenon is shown by the following chart for 2017 settlement numbers:

By type of case, settlements values in employment discrimination class actions, private plaintiff statutory workplace class actions, and government enforcement cases experienced the most significant increases.

The top ten settlements in the private plaintiff statutory class action category (e.g., cases brought for breach of contract for employee benefits, and workplace antitrust laws and statutes such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act or the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act) totaled $487.28 million.

This figure increased from $114.7 million in 2016.

The following chart shows this nearly five-fold increase:

Most telling, however, the reversal of the “Wal-Mart effect” is shown by the pattern for employment discrimination class action settlements in 2017, as well as a comparison of the settlement figures with previous settlement activity over the last decade.

This trend is illustrated in the following chart:

In 2017, the value of the top ten largest employment discrimination class action settlements of $293.5 million was the second highest figure since 2010, and bucked the trend that started in 2011 (after Wal-Mart was decided) that showed decreases in settlement amounts over three years of that four-year period. On a comparative basis, the settlement figure for 2017 was the third highest over the past eight years.

This trend, however, did not hold for wage & hour class action settlements. In 2017, the value of the top ten wage & hour settlements was $525 million, a decrease of over $170 million from 2016. However, when analyzed over the past eight years, the figure of $525 million actually was the second highest annual total in that time period.

When coupled together, the two-year period of 2016 and 2017 saw over $1.2 billion in the top wage & hour settlements.

Further, this is most telling in examining the last four years, for 2016 represented almost a quadrupling (after two years of declining numbers in 2013 and 2014) in the value of the top wage & hour settlements as compared to 2014.

This trend is illustrated by the following chart:

These settlement numbers reflect that Wal-Mart has had far less of an impact in this substantive legal area, as FLSA settlements are not explicitly tied to the concepts on class certification addressed in Wal-Mart (and instead, are based on the standards under 29 U.S.C.§ 216(b)).

Relatedly, the top ten settlements in government enforcement litigation experienced a booming upward arc, as they increased nearly ten-fold from $52.3 million in 2016 to $485.25 million in 2017.

By comparison, the top ten settlements in 2016 represented a slight decrease even from 2015, when settlements hit one of their lowest points in the past eight years.

This trend is illustrated by the following chart of settlements from 2010 to 2017:

ERISA class action settlements also were up in 2017, as the top ten settlements totaled $927.8 million. This figure represented an increase from $807.4 million in 2016.

Further, ERISA settlements for the two-year period of 2016 and 2017 were a combined $1.73 billion.

While the 2016 aggregate settlement number was nearly six times greater than in 2013, it entailed a significant decrease from 2014 (when settlements were $1.31 billion).

This trend is illustrated by the following chart of settlements from 2010 to 2017:

Implications For Employers

Settlement trends in workplace class action litigation are impacted by many factors.

In the coming year, settlement activity is apt to be influenced by developing case law interpreting U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the impact of the Trump Administration’s labor and employment enforcement policies, case filing trends of the plaintiffs’ class action bar, and class certification rulings. Stay tuned!