By Minh N. Vu and John W. Egan

Seyfarth Synopsis:  SCOTUS’s refusal to clarify standing requirements for “tester” plaintiffs in ADA Title III lawsuits means it’s business as usual for the plaintiffs’ bar.

This week, SCOTUS issued its decision in Acheson v. Laufer which – to the disappointment of private businesses and the defense bar – leaves unanswered the question of whether individuals who visit websites and businesses for no other reason than to evaluate their compliance with Title III of the ADA (i.e., so-called “testers”) have standing to bring a lawsuit.  While SCOTUS said it had the discretion to decide this very important question of tester standing, on which the U.S. Courts of Appeals are divided, it declined to do so because Laufer mooted the case by dismissing it at the District Court (along with all her other pending ADA Title III cases) after SCOTUS said it would review the case.  At oral argument two months ago, Defendant Acheson had urged SCOTUS to decide whether Laufer had standing nonetheless, pointing out that Laufer should not be permitted to evade a potentially unfavorable decision (and manipulate the Court’s jurisdiction in the process), by voluntarily dismissing her case with prejudice. 

Justice Barrett authored a brief opinion for the majority in which Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined.  That opinion credited Laufer’s claim that she had dismissed her lawsuit because one of her former attorneys had been sanctioned, rather than to evade the Court’s review.  The majority noted that Laufer represented to the Court that she would not file any other cases but emphasized that the Court might exercise its discretion differently in a future case. 

In his opinion concurring only in the judgment, Justice Thomas found Laufer’s explanation implausible and concluded that she dismissed her case as a “transparent tactic for evading review” by the Court.  He pointed out that the sanctioned attorney had never served as her counsel in the case.  He added: “[W]e have needlessly invited litigants to follow Laufer’s path to manipulate our docket.  We should not resolve this case about standing based upon mootness of Laufer’s own making.”  Justice Thomas went on to conclude that Laufer did not have standing because the alleged violation on the website (i.e. deficient accessibility information about the hotel) caused her no harm, as she never had any interest in staying at the hotel.  He then described the dangers of ADA testers who seek to vindicate the public interest, but do not have the accountability of the Executive Branch.  Without a violation of her own rights, he explained, Laufer was able to, without any discretion required of a government official, “surf the web” to ascertain compliance of hotels she had no intention to visit and obtain monetary settlements from businesses seeking to avoid substantial defense fees.  Justice Thomas concluded that these activities go far beyond the role for private plaintiffs that Congress envisioned in ADA Title III cases.     

Justice Thomas did join the majority with regard to the judgment which was to remand the matter with an order to dismiss and vacate the decision by the First Circuit Court of Appeals.  Justice Jackson, writing separately, agreed with the majority that the case was moot but wanted to leave in place the First Circuit Court of Appeal’s “pro-tester” ruling.

SCOTUS’s failure to settle the issue of tester standing should be very frustrating to private businesses which, in the past five years (2018-2022), have been hit with an average of 10,468 ADA Title III federal lawsuits a year.  Thousands of those suits are filed by tester plaintiffs whose stated desire to patronize the businesses they sue is highly questionable.  Few businesses have the resources to litigate a case all the way to SCOTUS.  Most businesses settle early to avoid incurring legal fees.  Thus, it is unlikely that this question will reach SCOTUS again for many years, especially when – like Laufer – plaintiffs can evade review by voluntarily dismissing their cases when faced with a potentially unfavorable judgment that could impact their future filings. The bottom line is that tester plaintiffs and their attorneys will continue to bring cases in those jurisdictions where the standing rules are less demanding such as the Fourth Circuit. The situation is somewhat unclear in the First and Eleventh Circuits because – while those circuits had adopted a less demanding standard – the decisions adopting that standard have both been vacated on mootness grounds.  Tester plaintiffs in the Second, Fifth, and Tenth Circuits will continue to face stricter standing requirements.  Meanwhile, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is contemplating whether to reconsider its decision in Langer v. Kisor which favors tester plaintiffs.  The Ninth Circuit had put on hold its decision on the Petition for Rehearing en banc to see how SCOTUS would rule in Acheson, and the court is now likely to move forward with its decision soon.