When bringing a lawsuit, there are various requirements that all plaintiffs must meet. Before a federal court can even address the merits of a case, the United States Constitution requires the plaintiff to demonstrate standing. Having standing is important because not every disagreement has the right to be heard in federal court. A lack of standing will result in the remand of the case to a proper court or a dismissal of the entire case.
Over the last century, the United States Supreme Court has established a test for determining when a person has standing to bring a claim in federal court. Although the Constitution does not mention standing requirements, the Supreme Court has based rules involving standing on the authority granted to federal courts by Article III of the Constitution, as well as relevant federal statutes.
Article III of the U.S. Constitution established the Supreme Court and gave Congress the authority to create additional courts. It also gave the Judicial Branch of the federal government authority over certain types of cases. The Judiciary Act of 1789, one of the first bills passed during the first session of Congress, created the federal judicial system, which today consists of a nationwide network of district courts and circuit courts of appeals. Federal law requires anyone seeking to file a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court to establish that the federal judiciary has jurisdiction over the subject matter of the dispute, and over the persons or entities involved.
However, those jurisdictional requirements are not the only thing a party needs in order to file a lawsuit. Parties also need to show that they have the proper standing for a court to hear their claims. The following is an overview of the requirements for standing.
What is Standing?
“Standing” is the legal right for a particular person to bring a claim in court. Standing effectively limits participation in lawsuits and asks whether the person(s) bringing or defending a lawsuit has cause to “stand” before the court. A plaintiff must establish that they meet the legal criteria for standing. This generally involves demonstrating an injury and a direct connection to the defendant. The Supreme Court has established a three-part test to determine whether someone has Article III standing. The current Article III standing rules were clearly established in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 55 (1992). The case involved a challenge by an environmental organization to federal regulations issued under the Endangered Species Act. When the Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiff, the three-part test for establishing standing in federal court was created. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove each of the elements.
Injury in Fact
A plaintiff must have suffered “an invasion of a legally protected interest” that meets two additional criteria: (1) it is “concrete and particularized”; and (2) it is “actual or imminent,” as opposed to “conjectural or hypothetical.” The injury does not need to be economic, but it needs to be something that has directly affected the plaintiff.
The plaintiff’s injury must be “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s conduct that is the subject of the lawsuit. It cannot have resulted from actions by someone who is not a party to the lawsuit.
Likelihood of Redress
A decision in the plaintiff’s favor must be likely to provide an adequate remedy for the plaintiff’s injuries. The court specified that “redress by a favorable decision” must be “likely,” rather than “merely speculative.”
Other Standing Requirements
In addition to Article III standing, someone trying to bring a suit must have “prudential standing”, which is established by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure . Prudential standing essentially requires that the party suing must be either the injured party, or an acceptable surrogate. Fed. R. of Civ. P. 17. Furthermore, if a plaintiff is filing a claim under a particular statute, they must also have “statutory standing.” A plaintiff has statutory standing if their injury falls within the “zone of interests” that the statute was meant to protect. Some statutes specifically allow private plaintiffs to file lawsuits under citizen suit provisions, while others may only be enforced only by the government. For example, the Endangered Species Act contains a citizen suit provision which grants private citizens standing to file lawsuits against parties who violate that law, so long as the citizen is personally injured by the violation.
Standing requirements can also be altered by statutes. In those instances, the statute will provide the specifics for what constitutes standing when a suit is brought under that statute. One example is the District of Columbia’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act (“CPPA”) which modifies Article III standing requirements with a statutory test. In Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Hormel Foods Corp., 258 A.3d 174 (D.C. 2021), the D.C. Court of Appeals held that the CPPA replaced Article III standing requirements with a statutory test that provides “maximum standing” to public interest organizations. That test requires an organization to “check three boxes”: (1) it must be a public interest organization (“a nonprofit organization that is organized and operating, in whole or in part, for the purpose of promoting interests or rights of consumers”); (2) it must identify a “consumer or class of consumers” that could bring the suit in their own right; and (3) it must have a “sufficient nexus” to those consumers’ interests to adequately represent them.
Standing is a threshold that every plaintiff must clear in order to have their claims heard in court. Without satisfying the elements of standing, a plaintiff will be unable to successfully bring their claim in court.
When an organization files a lawsuit, it must also show that it has standing to bring its claims. In order for an organization to satisfy Article III standing, it must prove that it satisfies one of the following types of standing: organizational standing, or associational standing.
Organizations can have standing to challenge actions that cause them a direct injury. In Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363 (1982), the Supreme Court found that organizational injury is typically recognized in two ways. First, that there has been a diversion of organizational resources to identify or counteract the allegedly unlawful action. Or second, that the action frustrates the organization’s mission. While most jurisdictions require organizations to show only one of these forms of injury to establish standing, some jurisdictions, like the Ninth Circuit, require organizations to show both.
Diversion of Resources
An organization may be able to establish standing by showing that it diverted its resources to identify or respond to a defendant’s allegedly unlawful actions. To satisfy the standing requirement, organizations must show that resources that could have otherwise been spent on the organization’s goals were diverted to address the challenged policy or practice. This is not always an easy bar for organizations to clear. Public interest groups, for example, sometimes have trouble proving that certain activities are an affirmative diversion of their resources rather than just a continuation of their existing advocacy. In Friends of the Earth v. Sanderson Farms, 992 F.3d 939 (2021), the public interest groups failed to establish organizational standing because they did not target the specific action at issue with additional resources. Instead, the groups had continued to carry out their regular activities without expending any additional resources as a result of the defendant’s alleged actions.
While the public interest group in Friends of the Earth v. Sanderson Farms could not prove that they had diverted resources, this is not always the case. In PETA v. USDA, 797 F.3d 1087 (D.C. Cir. 2015), the court found that the USDA’s inaction injured PETA’s interests and that PETA had to expend resources to counteract those injuries. The court held that the USDA’s challenged non-action plainly impaired PETA’s activities in a non-speculative manner by requiring PETA to divert and redirect its limited resources to counteract and offset the defendant’s unlawful conduct and omissions. In other words, PETA would not have had to expend the resources that it did absent the USDA’s failure to comply with its mandate.
A circuit split exists concerning whether diverting resources to support litigation alone is sufficient to confer standing. Litigation expenses alone cannot establish standing in the D.C., Third, Fifth, and Ninth Circuits, but in the Second, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits they can.
Frustration of Mission
An organization can also establish standing by showing a direct injury from conduct or policies that frustrate its mission. For example, in Farm Sanctuary v. USDA, No. 19-CV-06910, 2021 WL 2644068 (W.D.N.Y June 28, 2021), the court held that the plaintiffs plausibly alleged that the slaughter rule at issue impaired and frustrated their ability to engage in mission-related activities and interfered with their limited resources because it drastically increased the number of pigs raised for slaughter. Because the plaintiff organizations were able to show that the defendant’s conduct frustrated their organizational missions, the court found that they had the necessary standing to bring their case.
In the absence of direct organizational standing, the Supreme Court allows organizations to establish standing based on injuries to its members known as “associational standing.” Having a membership is essential to establishing associational standing, and it is therefore particularly useful for organizations such as animal advocacy groups, which frequently have an interest in seeking redress on behalf of their members. An organization can establish associational standing by (1) showing that at least one of its members has standing, (2) that the interests at stake are connected to the organization’s purpose, and (3) that neither the claim nor the relief requested requires participation of the organization’s individual members.
R-CALF v. USDA, No. CV 20-2552 (RDM), 2021 WL 4462723 (D.D.C. Sept. 29, 2021) is a recent example of associational standing. In that case, the court found that the general allegations that at least one of plaintiff R-CALF’s members had suffered an injury from the defendant’s conduct was enough to satisfy the first element of associational standing at that point in the litigation. R-CALF also successfully alleged that its members suffered a financial injury because of the defendant’s action, meeting the second element of associational standing. R-CALF met the third element of associational standing by successfully alleging that had the defendant followed proper procedures, there was a potential that the injury may not have occurred.
There have been several cases over the years in which an animal was named as the plaintiff. In each of these instances the animals were found to have no legal standing. The most comprehensive of these cases is Cetacean Community v. Bush, 386 F.3d 1169 (2004). There, a suit was brought against the government in the name of the cetacean community of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. It was ultimately decided that animals in general lacked standing to sue under the Endangered Species Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act because animals do not fit within the definition of a “person” allowed to bring a suit under the various statutes. Despite finding that the marine animals in that lawsuit lacked standing to bring their claim, the court did conclude that Article III does not prevent Congress from authorizing a suit in the name of an animal. However, Congress would have to enacted legislation specifically allowing for animals to have standing, which it has yet to do.
Because standing is an essential component of all cases, it can directly impact the success or failures of all agricultural law litigation. Organizations in particular need to pay close attention to the type of standing that they can satisfy based on who the lawsuit is intended to benefit, the organization itself or its members.
For more National Agricultural Law Center resources on court procedures, click here.
To view the case Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife in its entirety, click here.
To view the case Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Hormel Foods Corp. in its entirety, click here.
To view the case Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman in its entirety, click here.
To view the case Friends of the Earth v. Sanderson Farms in its entirety, click here.
To view the case PETA v. USDA in its entirety, click here.
To view the case R-CALF v. USDA in its entirety, click here.
To view the case Cetacean Community v. Bush in its entirety, click here.