Organizations may bring claims in federal court in two primary ways. First, an organization, like an individual plaintiff, may bring a claim when it has itself experienced an injury as a result of another party’s conduct. Second, an organization may assert “associational standing,” which allows it to bring a claim on behalf of its injured members. To assert associational standing, an organization must generally identify members who have been injured by the challenged conduct. The organization, in turn, asserts the standing of those injured members.
Because associational standing permits an organization to assert the standing of injured organizational members, complications arise when those members cease to have a live claim. If the members upon whom associational standing is premised no longer have an ongoing case or controversy, is the organization’s claim similarly moot?
Circuit courts have addressed this question inconsistently and with imprecision. Some circuits, following a strict approach to mootness, have held that the organization’s claim is moot or have required the organization to identify additional organizational members with live claims in order to preserve a live case or controversy. On the other hand, the case law of at least one circuit can be read as assuming a more flexible approach, permitting an organization to proceed with its claims so long as there is a reasonable probability that additional, unidentified organizational members are experiencing the alleged harm. The remaining circuits that have addressed the issue have done so with imprecision.
While the Supreme Court has yet to decide this issue, the Court’s justiciability doctrine and the conceptual underpinnings of associational standing counsel in favor of a strict approach. Both a comparison to the class action context and the Court’s mootness jurisprudence, moreover, counsel against a flexible approach.
This Note proceeds in three Parts. Part I provides background regarding associational standing and the Supreme Court’s mootness jurisprudence. Part II sets forth the current circuit landscape regarding mootness in the associational-standing context. Part III articulates an affirmative case for a strict approach to mootness in the associational-standing context and argues that a flexible approach is both without support in the Supreme Court’s justiciability doctrine and untethered from the conceptual underpinnings of associational standing.
In order to bring a case in federal court, a plaintiff must have “standing.”1 The “irreducible constitutional minimum of standing contains three elements”2: “The plaintiff must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.”3
An organizational plaintiff has standing to sue under two circumstances. First, an organization has standing if it can satisfy “the same inquiry as in the case of an individual.”4 That is, the organization must have a “direct stake in the outcome”5 — a causal, redressable injury — rather than a mere “organizational interest.”6 Second, an organization has associational standing when it can satisfy the three-part test set forth in Hunt v. Washington State Apple Advertising Commission.7 Under this test, an organization may “bring suit on behalf of its members when: (a) its members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right; (b) the interests it seeks to protect are germane to the organization’s purpose; and (c) neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members in the lawsuit.”8 To invoke associational standing, an organization must generally identify the members on whose behalf it is bringing suit.9
Even if an organizational plaintiff has standing to assert a claim in the first instance, a federal court must subsequently decline to hear the claim if it becomes moot.10 Because “federal courts are without power to decide questions that cannot affect the rights of litigants in the case before them,”11 a federal court cannot hear a case when the underlying “controversy between the parties has . . . clearly ceased to be ‘definite and concrete’ and no longer ‘touch[es] the legal relations of parties having adverse legal interests.’”12 Under such circumstances, a case is considered moot.13
The Court has identified two “exceptions” to mootness.14 First, an action for injunctive relief generally is not moot when a defendant voluntarily ceases their allegedly unlawful conduct, unless “there is no reasonable expectation that the wrong will be repeated.”15 Second, a federal court may hear an otherwise moot case if the complained-of conduct is “capable of repetition, yet evading review.”16 To prove this exception, a party must establish that “(1) the challenged action [is] in its duration too short to be fully litigated prior to its cessation or expiration, and (2) there [is] a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party [will] be subjected to the same action again.”17 While the capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception does not require that every “legally relevant” characteristic of the case will recur,18 it does require the recurrence of “materially similar” circumstances.19
II. Circuit Approaches
The Court’s mootness doctrine raises a vital question for an organizational plaintiff that asserts a claim based upon a theory of associational standing — does such a plaintiff’s claim become moot if the organizational members on whose behalf the organization is asserting associational standing cease to have a live claim?
Circuit courts have not answered this question in a uniform manner. Both the D.C. and Seventh Circuits have held that an organization’s associational-standing claim becomes moot when the members upon whom the claim is based cease to have a live case or controversy. The Seventh Circuit has implied, however, that the organization may be able to maintain a live claim if it identifies additional harmed members, a view also endorsed by the Sixth Circuit. The Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuit case law on this issue is imprecise. The Ninth Circuit has appeared to permit organizations to proceed with their claims based upon a reasonable probability that additional, unidentified organizational members are experiencing the alleged harm. And all three circuits can be read as endorsing such a flexible approach in the context of claims that are capable of repetition yet evading review.
A basic framework can help to navigate the case law on this issue. Throughout this Part, this Note identifies the following four broad approaches to mootness in the associational-standing context:
Strict Approach: An organization’s associational-standing claim becomes moot when the individual members upon whom that claim is based cease to have a live case or controversy.
Modified Strict Approach: An organization’s associational-standing claim becomes moot when the individual members upon whom that claim is based cease to have a live case or controversy, unless the organization can identify additional harmed members.
Flexible Approach: An organization’s associational-standing claim does not become moot when the individual members upon whom that claim is based cease to have a live case or controversy so long as there is a reasonable probability that other organizational members continue to experience the alleged harm.
Modified Flexible Approach: An organization’s associational-standing claim does not become moot when the individual members upon whom that claim is based cease to have a live case or controversy so long as there is a reasonable probability that other organizational members continue to experience the alleged harm and the alleged harm is capable of repetition yet evading review.
A. Strict Approaches — The D.C. and Seventh Circuits
The D.C. Circuit has adopted the strict approach, holding that when an organization asserts associational standing on behalf of its injured members, the organization’s claims become moot when those members’ claims become moot.20
In Munsell v. Department of Agriculture,21 the American Association of Meat Processors sought declaratory and injunctive relief against federal regulations and an enforcement action.22 The Association, which brought suit on behalf of its members, was joined by one of its members bringing suit in its individual capacity.23 After bringing suit, the individual plaintiff sold its “meat processing facilities, thereby eliminating all of [its] business operations that were subject to [Department of Agriculture] regulation and oversight.”24 The court held that this divestment mooted the individual plaintiff’s enforcement-action challenge and that the Association therefore “ha[d] no basis upon which to pursue [the] challenge.”25 In reaching this holding, the court noted that the individual plaintiff was the only Association member that had challenged the enforcement actions. “Therefore,” the court reasoned, “it follows that if [the Association] seeks to appear on behalf of [the individual plaintiff] to challenge the disputed agency enforcement actions and [the individual plaintiff’s] claims are moot, then [the Association’s] claims are moot as well.”26 The D.C. Circuit has since cited Munsell for the proposition that “when an association sues on behalf of its members, its claims become moot if its members’ claims become moot.”27
While the Seventh Circuit also seems to have adopted the strict approach, it has gestured toward the modified strict approach in dicta. In Milwaukee Police Ass’n v. Board of Fire & Police Commissioners,28 Melissa Ramskugler brought suit against the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners of Milwaukee, alleging that the Board violated her due process rights when it fired her without following state statutory requirements.29 Her union joined the suit.30 The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Board, and the plaintiffs appealed.31 Prior to oral argument on appeal, however, Ramskugler settled with the Board and signed a general release of claims.32 The Seventh Circuit subsequently dismissed the appeal, holding that “[t]he union never had standing to bring suit on its own behalf, and any claims previously derived from its membership [were] . . . moot” following Ramskugler’s settlement.33 Although acknowledging that the union “likely had associational standing at the time the complaint was filed,”34 the court found that its claims were moot because it had neither identified nor alleged the existence of another union member in Ramskugler’s “particularized position.”35 The court thus implied that the union’s claims might not be moot if it could identify similarly affected union members.36
B. Flexible Approaches — The Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits
In comparison to the D.C. and Seventh Circuits, the Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits have addressed the issue of mootness in the associational-standing context with imprecision. Both the Sixth and Ninth Circuits have at times seemed to adopt the flexible approach, permitting an organization’s claims to proceed where the members’ claims upon which the organization’s associational-standing claims are based become moot so long as there is a reasonable probability that other organizational members continue to experience the alleged harm. And all three circuits have used language that seems to contemplate the modified flexible approach for claims that are capable of repetition yet evading review.
The Ninth Circuit’s limited case law on this issue lacks clarity. In Oregon Advocacy Center v. Mink,37 the Oregon Advocacy Center brought suit on behalf of its constituent, A.J. Madison, a “mentally incapacitated criminal defendant,” against the Superintendent of the Oregon State Hospital and the Director of Oregon’s Department of Human Services (collectively, OSH) in their official capacities.38 Oregon Advocacy Center alleged that the defendants were “violating mentally incapacitated defendants’ due process rights by unreasonably delaying such defendants’ transfer from county jails to [the state mental hospital] for treatment” as required under Oregon law.39
The Ninth Circuit held that the case was not moot, despite the fact that “all seven persons held in county jails awaiting admission to OSH at the time the action was filed were in fact admitted to OSH by the time the trial began.”40 Emphasizing the “flexible character of the Art[icle] III mootness doctrine,”41 the court identified two reasons the case continued to present a live controversy.42 The court first emphasized that “the detention of incapacitated criminal defendants for weeks or months in Oregon county jails [was] an ongoing, pervasive[,] and systemic problem.”43 Analogizing to the class action context, the court reasoned that an individual detainee was unlikely to be detained long enough for judicial resolution of their claims.44 The court thus held that the “inherently transitory nature of the claims,”45 combined with the fact that “the constant existence of [Oregon Advocacy Center] constituents suffering the deprivation [was] certain,” sufficed to preserve the organization’s claims.46
The court separately held that the organization’s claims were not moot because the organization “challenge[d] not only OSH’s delay in admitting the seven individuals held in county jails at the time the suit was brought, but also the policy that result[ed] in such delays.”47 Without assessing the existence of an ongoing injury to an identified member of the organization, the court held that “[t]he continued and uncontested existence of the policy that gave rise to [Oregon Advocacy Center’s] legal challenge foreclose[d] OSH’s mootness argument.”48 In both of these arguments, the Oregon Advocacy Center court’s mootness analysis appeared to turn on the likelihood of an ongoing injury as to some member of the organization, rather than as to the members upon whom associational standing was based or other specifically identified members.
Read broadly, Oregon Advocacy Center can be interpreted as permitting an organization to maintain a live case or controversy when the claims of the members upon whom the organization’s associational standing is based cease to have a live claim so long as there is a reasonable probability that other members will continue to face the same alleged harm. While it does not appear that subsequent case law has cited Oregon Advocacy Center for this broad proposition, it arguably remains a viable reading of the court’s analysis, given the fact that the court found that the case was not moot without requiring the organization to identify additional harmed members.
Read more narrowly, Oregon Advocacy Center can be interpreted as adopting a flexible approach to mootness in the associational-standing context for claims that are capable of repetition yet evading review. Admittedly, the Oregon Advocacy Center court mentioned this “exception” only briefly in a footnote in the course of describing a case to which it was analogizing.49 However, the court specifically emphasized the “transitory nature of the claims” before it.50 And, while the court’s separate finding that the organization’s claims were not moot because the organization challenged an ongoing government policy could be read as not involving the capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception, subsequent Ninth Circuit case law has not made such a distinction.51 Indeed, the Seventh Circuit has characterized Oregon Advocacy Center as “shoehorn[ing] ongoing policy challenges into th[e] exception.”52
The Sixth Circuit, for its part, has at times seemed to adopt positions that align with both of these readings. In Cleveland Branch, NAACP v. City of Parma,53 a branch of the NAACP, alongside the NAACP itself, brought suit against the City of Parma, Ohio, alleging racial discrimination in the city’s recruitment, selection, and hiring processes for city employees.54 The organizations identified seven organizational members who had allegedly been injured as a result of this discrimination,55 and the court found that the organizations had established associational standing through at least one of those seven individuals.56
Although the City removed the residency requirement that served as the basis for the identified member’s alleged injury, the Sixth Circuit held that the case was not moot.57 First, the court held that the City “failed to prove that its alleged discriminatory recruitment, selection, and hiring practices, including the use of a residency requirement, could not reasonably be expected to recur.”58 Second, the court held that the City “failed to prove that interim relief or events had irrevocably eradicated the effects of the allegedly discriminatory conduct,” noting that the City had “fail[ed] to eradicate the effects of [its] allegedly discriminatory actions.”59
The Cleveland Branch court’s mootness analysis appeared to assume the flexible approach, focusing on whether the alleged harm could recur as to NAACP members broadly, rather than as to the member upon whom associational standing was based.60 For this reason, the Sixth Circuit has at times characterized Cleveland Branch as “appearing to hold that even if a named member’s claims ha[ve] become moot, the association retain[s] standing because the named member had standing at the outset of the litigation.”61 And, in Cleveland Branch itself, Judge Boggs argued in dissent that the NAACP’s case was moot because “[t]he single plaintiff that the court relie[d] upon in order to hold that the NAACP ha[d] standing . . . no longer ha[d] a personal stake [in the outcome].”62
Despite these characterizations, the Sixth Circuit later seemed to walk back Cleveland Branch. In Memphis A. Philip Randolph Institute v. Hargett,63 the court held that an organization’s associational claim was moot where “the only affected member [the organization] identified” had a moot claim.64 In Memphis, two registered Tennessee voters and five Tennessee organizations brought suit against Tennessee government officials involved in election enforcement to challenge a law that required first-time voters to vote in person, rather than absentee.65 The Sixth Circuit held that the named plaintiff through whom the organizations asserted associational standing no longer qualified to cast an absentee ballot under Tennessee law and therefore “no longer ha[d] an actual, ongoing stake in [the] litigation.”66
While the plaintiffs attempted to rely on Cleveland Branch to assert that the organization retained standing, the court found that such an argument failed to distinguish between standing and mootness.67 The plaintiffs, the court held, “[could not] rely on Cleveland Branch’s standing analysis to save their case if [the named member’s] claim [was] moot, given that [the named member was] the only affected member plaintiffs [had] identified.”68
After finding the organizations’ claims moot, the Sixth Circuit further held that the claims did not satisfy the capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception because they were “inextricably tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, a once-in-a-century crisis.”69 In holding that the organization’s claims did not satisfy this exception, the court found that there was “not a reasonable expectation that [the named member], other members of the plaintiff organizations, or the public will face the same burdens as voters did in the fall of 2020.”70 This language implies that the court may not have found the case moot had the plaintiff organization successfully argued that the alleged harm was capable of repetition yet evading review as to other, unnamed organization members.
The Sixth Circuit has elsewhere permitted an organization’s associational-standing claim to proceed in the face of mootness concerns where the organization identifies another similarly situated member with a live controversy.71 In the Sixth Circuit, an organization may therefore assert “associational standing with one named member in the complaint and then maintain a live controversy after the original member’s claim is extinguished by identifying some other named member who would have a live claim in his own right.”72
The Eleventh Circuit, like the Sixth and Ninth Circuits, has seemed to endorse a modified flexible approach to mootness in the associational-standing context for claims that are capable of repetition yet evading review. In Arcia v. Florida Secretary of State,73 Florida voters and organizational plaintiffs brought suit against Florida’s Secretary of State, alleging that Florida had violated a federal law that requires states to “complete, not later than 90 days prior to the date of [an election], any program the purpose of which is to systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.”74 Although the election passed before the plaintiffs successfully litigated their claims, the Eleventh Circuit held that the case was not moot, finding that “there [was] a reasonable expectation that the plaintiffs [would] be subject to [a voter list removal provision] again” given that the lower court had interpreted the relevant federal law to allow for systematic removal programs within ninety days of an election and the Secretary had not offered to refrain from such removal in future elections.75
The court’s analysis was imprecise. It is not clear whether the court determined that the capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception applied to the organizational plaintiffs because the organization’s members generally could again be subject to the challenged conduct or because the specific members upon whose behalf the organizations asserted associational standing could again be subject to the challenged conduct.76
But, in analyzing Arcia and Cleveland Branch, it is worth noting that federal courts sometimes apply the capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception more liberally in the election-law context. The Supreme Court’s doctrine on this issue has not been a model of clarity.77 In Storer v. Brown,78 the Court found that the case before it was not moot without specifically examining the likelihood of repetition with respect to the complaining parties.79 Other circuits have split on the application of the same-complaining-party rule in the election-law context.80 The Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Circuits do not appear to adhere to a strict application of the rule in election-law cases — which might help explain the dicta in Cleveland Branch.81 The Second and Eleventh Circuits, on the other hand, have adhered to the rule even in the election-law context, requiring direct evidence that the complaining party will likely again be subject to the challenged behavior.82 Other circuits have at times adopted a relaxed approach to the same-complaining-party rule in such cases, subjecting complaining parties to a lower evidentiary standard.83
The election-law context, then, may only add to the confusion. The Eleventh Circuit’s seeming preference for a strict approach to the same-complaining-party rule, even in the election-law context, would logically imply that the Arcia court determined that the capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception applied to the organizational plaintiffs because the members on whose behalf the organizations asserted associational standing could again be subject to the challenged conduct. However, as noted above, the Arcia court’s reasoning was not clear on this point. It is thus possible that the Eleventh Circuit would consider an organization — rather than the organizational members on behalf of whom the organization asserts associational standing — to be the “same complaining party” for the purpose of the capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception to mootness. Under such an approach, the court would need to determine not whether the alleged harm might recur against the organizational members upon whom associational standing was based, but only whether the alleged harm might recur against the organization’s members generally. Indeed, district courts in the Eleventh Circuit have occasionally assumed this line of reasoning.84
Notwithstanding this election-law wrinkle, Oregon Advocacy Center, Memphis, and Arcia each evidence an apparent willingness to find that an associational-standing case is capable of repetition yet evading review (and therefore not moot) because the organization’s members generally may again face the same alleged harm.85
The application of mootness to the associational-standing context is undertheorized. As set forth above, circuit approaches to mootness in the associational-standing context are perhaps better characterized as underdeveloped than as split. Not every circuit seems to have addressed the issue, and those that have done so have sometimes lacked precision in their approach. At the same time, no legal scholarship has been devoted to the intersection between associational standing and mootness.
This Part aims to lend doctrinal clarity to this area of justiciability doctrine. Section A argues in favor of the strict or modified strict approach and against the flexible and modified flexible approaches. Section B defends the strict(er) approaches against analogies to the class action context. Section C defends the strict(er) approaches against “prudential” considerations.
A. The Case for a Strict(er) Approach
The strict and modified strict approaches to mootness in the associational-standing context are firmly grounded in Article III and the Supreme Court’s justiciability doctrine. “In limiting the judicial power to ‘Cases’ and ‘Controversies,’ Article III of the Constitution restricts it to the traditional role of Anglo-American courts, which is to redress or prevent actual or imminently threatened injury to persons caused by private or official violation of law.”86 The doctrines of standing and mootness “reflect this fundamental limitation”87 by ensuring that plaintiffs allege and maintain a sufficient personal stake in the outcome of the controversy to warrant federal court jurisdiction.88
When organizations bring associational-standing claims, they “assert the standing of their members,”89 not of themselves.90 In this way, an organization asserting associational standing is not a mere plaintiff but rather a plaintiff bringing suit “on behalf of” members who “would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right.”91 It is for this reason that an organization asserting associational standing must identify specific members who have been injured by the challenged action; absent the injuries of such members, the organization has no associational standing. When the claims of these specifically identified members become moot, the organization logically ceases to have a “personal interest in the dispute,”92 at least absent the identification of additional harmed members.
That some organizational members may be similarly harmed — the conceptual underpinning of the flexible approach — is not sufficient to support a live claim. To allow an organization to maintain a live controversy merely by establishing a generalized likelihood that similarly situated members continue to face the alleged harm would be to diminish the showing necessary to avoid mootness vis-à-vis the showing necessary to establish associational standing. Although mootness is not merely “standing set in a time frame,”93 permitting an organization to circumvent mootness in this manner does not simply diminish the organization’s burden — it alters it completely. Furthermore, the Court has explicitly and firmly rejected a framework under which an organization may assert standing by establishing that “there is a statistical probability that some [organizational] members are threatened with concrete injury,” calling such a framework “hitherto unheard[ ]of.”94 There is no reason to believe that the Court would be more amenable to such an approach in the context of mootness.
For similar reasons, the two strict(er) approaches to mootness are appropriate even for claims that are capable of repetition yet evading review. In Memphis, Oregon Advocacy Center, and Arcia, the Sixth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits evidenced a willingness to entertain the modified flexible approach, under which an organization’s associational-standing claims may not be moot if the alleged harm is capable of repetition yet evading review as to the organization’s members in general, rather than as to the members upon whom associational standing was based in particular. However, such an approach is untethered from the conceptual underpinnings of associational standing and the relevant doctrine. In the absence of a class action, the capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception requires that the alleged harm recur with respect to the same complaining party.95 The “complaining party” in an associational-standing case is not the organization but the members upon whom associational standing is based. In contrast to direct organizational standing, under which the organization asserts its own causal, redressable injury,96 associational standing permits an organization to assert the injuries of specifically identified organizational members.97 Because the complained-of conduct and injury occur as to those specifically identified members, not to the organization itself, the relevant parties for the same-complaining-party rule are the specifically identified organizational members. To reason otherwise would be to diminish the same-complaining-party rule, an approach that existing doctrine supports only in the class action context.98
While these considerations counsel in favor of the strict(er) approaches to mootness in the associational-standing context, they do not distinguish fully between the strict approach and the modified strict approach. While this Note will not purport to select the better of the two, a few considerations are helpful in considering the merits of each.
On the one hand, the strict approach is fully grounded in the Court’s justiciability doctrine and the theoretical underpinnings of associational standing. If an organization asserting associational standing asserts its claims on behalf of individual members who themselves have standing to sue, it would seem that the organization’s claim is inexorably intertwined with the claims of the members upon whom its associational standing is based. To permit the organization to continue to assert a claim when the initially identified members themselves cease to have a live case or controversy would arguably dissociate these claims, permitting the organization to proceed in a more fluid representational capacity that is not contemplated by the associational-standing framework. While identifying additional harmed organizational members admittedly ensures a live controversy in which the organization has a stake,99 it does not preserve the live controversy represented by the organization’s original claims.
On the other hand, the modified strict approach does not appear fully foreclosed by the Court’s case law or Article III. It is possible to argue that, although an organization asserts associational standing on the basis of specific members who have standing to bring suit in their own right, it brings its claims on behalf of all similarly harmed members, whether specifically identified or not. In other words, the organization must establish that Hunt’s first prong — and Article III — is satisfied by identifying individual members with standing, but it nevertheless brings its claims on behalf of all members with such standing. Under this reasoning, if the specifically identified members’ claims become moot, the organization can maintain a live case or controversy by pointing to additional members not previously identified but represented from the beginning. Indeed, the Court’s language does not directly foreclose this reasoning. While the Court has stated that organizations bringing associational-standing claims “assert the standing of their members”100 and bring suit “on behalf of” members who “would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right,”101 the Court has not said that these members are coextensive with those that the organization specifically identifies.
Current doctrine, then, is not conclusive in selecting between the strict approach and the modified strict approach.
B. (Dis)analogies to the Class Action Context
The affirmative case for either of the strict(er) approaches is not undercut by analogies to class action lawsuits. While the Ninth Circuit drew upon such analogies in Oregon Advocacy Center, subsequent Supreme Court case law likely forecloses this reasoning.
As the Ninth Circuit acknowledged in Oregon Advocacy Center, federal courts have wrestled with mootness problems in the context of class action lawsuits.102 In Sosna v. Iowa,103 the Supreme Court held that the claims of unnamed members of a certified class do not necessarily become moot upon the termination of a class representative’s claim.104 Sosna’s holding, however, was rather narrow: where the nature of the claim is such that “the issue sought to be litigated escapes full appellate review at the behest of any single challenger . . . the intervening resolution of the controversy as to the named plaintiffs” does not moot the claims of the unnamed plaintiffs.105
Although Sosna thus seemed to require that a claim fall within the capable-of-repetition-yet-evading-review exception to mootness,106 the Court has frequently read Sosna broadly. One year after Sosna was decided, the Court permitted a class action to proceed despite the fact that the only named class representative’s claims were moot, asserting that “nothing in our Sosna or [other] opinions holds or even intimates that the fact that the named plaintiff no longer has a personal stake in the outcome of a certified class action renders the class action moot unless there remains an issue ‘capable of repetition, yet evading review.’”107 Instead, the Court continued, “[g]iven a properly certified class action, Sosna contemplates that mootness turns on whether, in the specific circumstances of the given case at the time it is before this Court, an adversary relationship sufficient to fulfill this function exists.”108 Based on this reasoning, the Court concluded that unnamed class members’ continued adversary relationship with respect to the underlying cause of action may preserve a live controversy, even where the named class member’s claim is moot.109 The modern Court has similarly characterized Sosna in broad terms,110 while “emphasiz[ing] the filing of a motion for certification as the pivotal moment in determining whether a collective action becomes moot when the named plaintiff’s claim is mooted.”111
There are superficially compelling reasons to treat mootness in the associational-standing context like mootness in the class action context. At first appearance, an organization asserting associational standing seems to serve a representational purpose similar to that of a named class action plaintiff. Furthermore, the contexts present similar policy concerns. In particular, the Court has evidenced anxiety regarding class action defendants’ “opportunistic use of mootness doctrine” to “moot the named plaintiff’s claim before the potentially more-damaging class action becomes viable.”112 Similar concerns arguably arise in the associational-standing context if the potential shared claims of unidentified organizational members are mooted when the claims of organizational members upon whom associational standing is based become moot.
The Sosna Court’s reasoning, however, counsels against applying its holding to the associational-standing context. In Sosna, the Court’s mootness determination turned on the fact that the lawsuit at issue was a class action lawsuit.113 Had the appellant brought a claim in an individual capacity on only her own behalf, the Court reasoned, her case would be moot.114 Instead, she brought her suit as a class action lawsuit in a representative capacity.115 Thus, “[w]hen the District Court certified the propriety of the class action, the class of unnamed persons described in the certification acquired a legal status separate from the interest asserted by appellant.”116 As the Court noted, “[t]he certification of a suit as a class action has important consequences for the unnamed members of the class,” including with regard to the binding nature of a subsequent judgment on the merits and procedural requirements for settlement and dismissal of claims.117 For these reasons, the Sosna Court determined that the separate legal status afforded to unnamed class members “significantly affect[ed] the mootness determination.”118
The special circumstances on which the Sosna Court’s reasoning turned are not present in the associational-standing context. As Justice Powell once explained, “organizational standing differs in controlling respects from the typical class action.”119 First, an organization’s assertion of associational standing does not confer separate legal status upon the organization’s members. Second, while the class action context requires that there be “an identity of interests among all plaintiffs before the court” in order to “assure adequate representation,”120 no such identity is required for associational standing. Instead, the organization need only assert that, among other things, “its members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right” and that “the interests [the organization] seeks to protect are germane to the organization’s purpose.”121 Thus, while a class representative represents a class of individuals who have all been injured in a common manner,122 an organizational plaintiff asserting associational standing alleges that “its members, or any one of them, are suffering . . . injury as a result of the challenged action.”123 When the named class plaintiff’s claim becomes moot, there remains an entire class of individuals who have experienced the alleged harm and who have gained separate legal status.124 When the claims of the organizational members upon whom an organization has asserted associational standing become moot, there remains only an unascertained group of organizational members who may or may not have been harmed. And, under some circumstances, the interests of the unascertained group of organizational members may even be adverse to those of the organization or each other.125
Supreme Court case law, moreover, does not support “a freestanding exception to mootness outside the class action context.”126 In United States v. Sanchez-Gomez,127 the Supreme Court vacated a Ninth Circuit opinion that held that four criminal defendants’ claims challenging the use of full-body restraints during pretrial proceedings were not moot, notwithstanding the fact that their criminal cases had already concluded.128 The Ninth Circuit had relied upon Gerstein v. Pugh,129 in which the Supreme Court recognized a “narrow class of cases in which the termination of a class representative’s claim [prior to class certification] does not moot the claims of the unnamed members of the class” because the claim is capable of repetition yet evading review.130 The Ninth Circuit had also cited Oregon Advocacy Center, noting that it had “applied Gerstein’s analysis to functional class actions with inherently transitory claims.”131 It dismissed the argument that Gerstein’s holding “turn[ed] on the presence of a procedural device like Rule 23,” instead concluding that the Gerstein Court’s analysis focused on the “inherently transitory” nature of the claims.132 The Ninth Circuit thus found Gerstein applicable to “class-like claims” seeking “class-like relief.”133
The Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit’s “reliance [on Gerstein] was misplaced.”134 Emphasizing the special nature of the class action context, the Court asserted that “Gerstein belongs to a line of cases . . . turning on the particular traits of civil class actions.”135 The Court further characterized Gerstein as “provid[ing] a limited exception to Sosna’s requirement that a named plaintiff with a live claim exist at the time of class certification” for those cases in which “the pace of litigation and the inherently transitory nature of the claims at issue conspire to make that requirement difficult to fulfill.”136 The Court thus rejected the Ninth Circuit’s attempt to “‘recognize . . . a common-law kind of class action’ or ‘create de facto class actions at will,’”137 emphasizing that “the ‘mere presence of . . . allegations’ that might, if resolved in respondents’ favor, benefit other similarly situated individuals cannot ‘save [respondents’] suit from mootness once the[ir] individual claim[s]’ have dissipated.”138
While Sanchez-Gomez involved individual plaintiffs, rather than an organization asserting associational standing, its holding throws cold water on the flexible approaches. First, the Ninth Circuit relied on Oregon Advocacy Center for the proposition that Gerstein was applicable to “functional class actions with inherently transitory claims”139 — a proposition directly refuted by the Sanchez-Gomez Court.140 Second, there is little daylight between the “functional class action” that the Ninth Circuit identified in Sanchez-Gomez141 Sanchez-Gomez, 859 F.3d at 658. and the Ninth Circuit’s determination that the associational-standing circumstances in Oregon Advocacy Center were “analogous to” the Gerstein class action context.142 In both instances, the Ninth Circuit applied a narrow exception to mootness for certain class actions that are capable of repetition yet evading review by aggregating the claims of similarly situated individuals and emphasizing the transitory nature of those claims.143 While the Supreme Court’s rejection of this approach in Sanchez-Gomez did not directly reject the Ninth Circuit’s use of this approach in the associational-standing context, it is difficult to see how “functional class actions”144 can persist for organizations but not individual plaintiffs.
Following Sanchez-Gomez, then, Oregon Advocacy Center may remain good law in name only, not yet overruled but precarious precedent nonetheless. If that is true, it is difficult to see how the modified flexible approach to mootness in the associational-standing context survives Sanchez-Gomez’s reasoning. And, if the modified flexible approach is foreclosed, the flexible approach logically is as well.
C. “Prudential” Considerations
Finally, neither the flexible approach nor the modified flexible approach can be defended on prudential grounds.
While discussing the voluntary-cessation exception to mootness in Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (TOC), Inc.,145 the Supreme Court noted that “there are circumstances in which the prospect that a defendant will engage in (or resume) harmful conduct may be too speculative to support standing, but not too speculative to overcome mootness.”146 The Court reasoned in part from functional considerations, noting:
Standing doctrine functions to ensure, among other things, that the scarce resources of the federal courts are devoted to those disputes in which the parties have a concrete stake. In contrast, by the time mootness is an issue, the case has been brought and litigated, often (as here) for years. To abandon the case at an advanced stage may prove more wasteful than frugal.147
A proponent of one of the flexible approaches may similarly argue that the prospect that unidentified associational members may experience the alleged harm may be too speculative to support associational standing under Hunt, but not too speculative to overcome mootness. Under this reasoning, when an organization initially asserts associational standing on behalf of specifically identified members and later maintains the same suit on behalf of unidentified members, a live case or controversy continues to exist for the purposes of Article III in part because to hold otherwise would be to unnecessarily and “wasteful[ly]” “abandon the case.”148
Laidlaw cannot support this reading. First, although Laidlaw permitted a mootness inquiry that was less demanding than the standing inquiry, this diminished standard was limited to circumstances involving the voluntary-cessation exception to mootness.149 While cases brought under associational standing may involve this exception at a later stage of litigation, they do not necessarily. Second, even the Laidlaw Court’s seemingly practical analysis was cabined. Despite acknowledging that it may, in certain circumstances, be “wasteful” to “abandon [a] case at an advanced stage,” the Laidlaw Court clarified that “[t]his argument from sunk costs does not license courts to retain jurisdiction over cases in which one or both of the parties plainly lack a continuing interest.”150 In so specifying, the Court noted that practical considerations regarding “sunk costs” do not permit federal courts to hear non–class action suits in which the plaintiff’s claim has been mooted.151 It would thus be difficult to fit organizations asserting associational standing within Laidlaw’s mootness framework.
Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that “prudential” considerations will have a resurgence in the near future. Despite academic calls to untether mootness from Article III,152 the modern Court has tightened its justiciability doctrines in recent years. It is difficult to imagine that a Court that has gradually made it more difficult for plaintiffs to assert and Congress to confer standing153 will at the same time make more flexible its mootness review. Admittedly, the Court could conceivably heighten the requirements for a case to be brought in the first instance while also more readily finding that a live case or controversy persists. However, such an approach seems unlikely in light of the fact that the modern Court has declined to broaden exceptions to mootness when presented with the opportunity to do so.154
Finally, even if the Court were willing to afford greater weight to prudential considerations, there is no good reason to do so within the context of associational standing. If there is a reasonable probability that additional, unidentified organizational members are experiencing the alleged harm at the time that the members upon whom the organization’s associational standing was originally based cease to have a live claim, the organization should be capable of identifying such members. Under the strict approach, the organization’s burden is to identify such members and then bring suit on their behalf. Under the modified strict approach, the organization’s burden is simply to substantiate the claim that the challenged action continues to cause organizational members harm by identifying additional members. While prudential considerations may have a role in selecting between the strict and modified strict approaches, they should not foreclose either.
This Note has argued that when an organization asserts a claim based upon associational standing, its claim becomes moot when the members upon whom its associational standing is based cease to have a live case or controversy, unless — perhaps — the organization can identify additional harmed members. Such an approach to mootness in the associational-standing context is properly grounded in Article III. More flexible approaches are at best not supported by and at worst foreclosed by the Supreme Court’s contemporary justiciability doctrine, and there is no reason to believe that the Court’s mootness jurisprudence will or should accommodate them in the near future.