Class actions are like butterflies; they must undergo a metamorphosis before they fly. The transformation occurs when a court grants class certification. At that instant, what had started out as an individual lawsuit emerges as its own entity, with a number of legal consequences flowing from the change. Among them, plaintiff’s counsel becomes class counsel, representing and owing fiduciary duties to the entire class; the court also becomes a fiduciary, charged with its own responsibility for protecting absent class members (including, importantly, the duty to scrutinize proposed class settlements); and class members become represented parties, which triggers the ethical rules that limit or prohibit defense counsel from communicating with them.
The situation before class certification is different. Because the class does not yet exist, most courts recognize that the fiduciary duties of plaintiff’s counsel and the court to putative class members do not kick in (or, at least, not fully), and defense counsel is generally free to communicate directly with