Mar 9, 2010

More Stringent Standard for Organizational Standing and the Need to Keep an Eye on this Issue.

Equal Rights Ctr. v. Post Props. 657 F. Supp. 2d 197 (D.D.C. 2009)

Decided September 28, 2009

This case stands on the principle that organizational standing is not available when an organization's injury is self-inflicted. Whether we are seeing a more stringent principle being promulgated, a refinement in the law or a case of bad strategy is unclear.

Equal Rights Center ("ERC"), an organization devoted to advancing civil rights and fair housing for everyone, brought suit against Post Properties for allegedly failing to bring their buildings into compliance with accessibility provisions in the American Disabilities Act ("ADA") and Fair Housing Act ("FHA"). Post Properties owns and manages more than 21,000 apartment units across five states. According to the Court's description of the facts, ERC, on its own accord, chose to investigate one of Post's buildings to determine whether they were in compliance with accessibility laws.

The issue in the case is not whether Post actually violated accessibility laws but whether ERC had the authority to file suite and come before the court as an organization. To get before a court of law, Article III of the Constitution requires the plaintiff to have "suffered a concrete and particularized injury that is actual or imminent, traceable to the challenged act, and redressable by [the] court." Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555 (1992).

Whether organizations have standing to sue on behalf of injured persons is not at issue here. The issue is whether organizations have standing in their own right, independent of its individual member's injury. While injury to an organization representing the interests of a particular class of persons may seem less concrete and particularized than that of an individual who is unable to rent from Post because a unit's doorway is not wide enough to fit a wheelchair, the Supreme Court has granted organizations standing before the court without necessarily creating a special exception. Haven's Realty Corp v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363 (1982).

In Haven's, the Court ruled that a nonprofit corporation devoted to equal housing access had standing against a defendant's racial steering practices because steering frustrated its mission to assist minorities in accessing housing. Id. Additionally, the nonprofit, in providing such services, had to expend substantial resources in identifying violations of the law in the community they served. Even if no economic resources had been expended, the court noted that an organization is not deprived of organizational standing when the alleged injury results from the organization's non-economic interest in encouraging open housing. The nonprofit merely has to demonstrate that it "suffered impairment in its role of facilitating open housing." Id. at 379.

According to the court in Equal Rights Center, the standing doctrine in Haven's does not however extend to where a plaintiff's injury "merely consists of the impact on its activities caused by their willful diversion of resources in response to the defendants' conduct." Equal Rights Ctr. v. Post Props. 657 F. Supp. 2d 197 (D.D.C. 2009). Thus, organizational standing will not be found when the injury to the plaintiff is said to be purely self-inflicted and arising solely out of their own decision to expend resources. Id. at 201.

Through its interpretation of the discovery proceedings, the court here determined that ERC essentially conceded that its injuries were caused by its own decision to investigate the Defendant. This lead to the finding that ERC's injuries were purely self-inflicted and thus falling outside the scope of standing law provided in Haven's.

Whether this decision marks a tightening of Organizational Standing law or wrong strategy is unclear. It seems that the court should have recognized that ERC's ability to provide the service of referring persons to handicapped accessible housing was impaired by the Defendant's alleged failure to comply with accessibility standards. The fewer handicapped accessible units (required by law) within a community, the more difficult it will be for ERC to fulfill its mission of providing equal housing to persons with a handicap. It is also possible; however, that ERC did not sufficiently plead this injury; in which case, the court is not required to supplement deficiencies on behalf of either party. (While the true facts of the suite are unclear, it is always prudent to file a case with a bona-fide plaintiff who was looking for accessible housing and join them in the claims against Defendant).

On the other hand, this case, if appealed, may change the interpretation of the long standing requirements set forth in Haven's. Perhaps this case represents a movement away from finding organizational standing in situations where the injury to an organization's mission is less concrete.

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