When Associations Attack: Beware Standing And Other Pitfalls When Suing On Behalf Of Members

If you are an in-house lawyer for a trade or professional association, you probably spend a good amount of your time counseling the association and its members on the importance of complying with government regulations, industry-specific laws, and laws of general applicability, such as the antitrust laws. On occasion, however, the circumstances may flip, with members pushing your association to file a lawsuit on behalf of members – perhaps to challenge a government regulation or to protect members from a perceived competitive threat. How should you counsel your association in these situations? On the one hand, you are sensitive to member needs and pressure. On the other, pursuing litigation is costly and time consuming, and may expose your association and its members to potential counterattacks. Balancing these interests is often a complex task.

For those associations looking for an excuse not to pursue litigation, a recent federal district court case, Association of Independent Gas Station Owners v. Quiktrip Corp., No. 4:11CV2083 (E.D. Mo. July 20, 2012), reaffirms the high jurisdictional bar that associations face when bringing suit on behalf of members. This article provides a brief overview of the case along with practical guidance for associations considering (or trying to avoid) litigation on behalf of their members.

High Bar for Representational Standing

As with all litigants, an association may bring a lawsuit in court only if it has standing – meaning the association must demonstrate to the court that it has suffered injury in fact, that the injury is fairly traceable to the defendant, and that the injury will likely be redressed by a favorable decision. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-561 (1992); Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 471-472 (1982). An association may sue on its own behalf if it has suffered an injury, or the association may, under certain circumstances, sue in a representational capacity on behalf of its members.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that an association has standing to sue on behalf of its members only if the following conditions are met: (1) the association's members would otherwise have standing in their own right, (2) the interest the association is seeking to protect is germane to the association's purpose, and (3) neither the claim asserted, nor the relief requested, requires participation of individual...

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