Seyfarth Synopsis: The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Spokeo decision may lead to more careful scrutiny of whether ADA Title III plaintiffs have a sufficiently “concrete” injury to confer jurisdiction in federal court.

As reported in previous posts, some courts have, in recent years, bent over backwards to find that plaintiffs with no legitimate reason to visit a business, or intent to do so in the future, have standing to sue under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A sharp increase in the number of ADA Title III lawsuits has followed these decisions.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s May 16, 2016 decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins may impact how courts across the country interpret standing requirements for these cases in the future. Although not an ADA case, lower courts may apply Spokeo to reign in the recent growth of Title III litigation.

In Spokeo, the plaintiff filed a putative class action against a company that operated an online background search service. In the complaint, the plaintiff alleged that information provided about him in a background report, such as his marital status, age, and education, was inaccurate. The plaintiff, on behalf of himself and a class of similarly situated individuals, charged the company with willfully violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by failing to adopt procedures to ensure the accuracy of its reports.

The Ninth Circuit held that the complaint in Spokeo sufficiently alleged an injury-in-fact as required for standing, but the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision, and remanded the case.

In a majority opinion by Justice Alito, the Court held that the Ninth Circuit’s standing analysis was incomplete because it failed to consider whether the alleged injury was sufficiently “concrete.” To qualify as a “case or controversy” over which a federal court has jurisdiction, according to the Court, there must be a concrete injury, meaning it must “actually exist”, and be “real” rather than “abstract.” The problem with the complaint in Spokeo, the Court reasoned, was that a violation of the FCRA’s procedural requirements may result in no harm. The Court directed the Ninth Circuit to consider on remand “whether the particular procedural violations alleged . . . entail a degree of risk sufficient to meet the concreteness requirement.”

This case raises interesting questions for ADA Title III matters where standing can be a hotly contested issue:

  • Does an ADA “tester” who travels to businesses, not to purchase goods or services, but instead solely to evaluate compliance, suffer “concrete” injury as clarified in Spokeo?
  • Do ADA plaintiffs have standing to challenge all barriers at a business related to their disability, or only those that they actually encountered during their visit?
  • Does a serial ADA plaintiff’s litigation history have any bearing on whether he or she suffered “concrete” injury in a given case?

Although the implications of Spokeo for ADA Title III cases are not entirely clear at this point, the decision is good news for businesses. Some ADA Title III plaintiffs have only the most tenuous connection to the businesses they sue, and the alleged barriers that they challenge. Spokeo may prompt lower courts to more carefully scrutinize whether their alleged injuries are sufficiently “concrete” to confer jurisdiction in federal court.