When a party files a lawsuit there are many things he or she must prove besides just the facts of the case. One of these legal concepts is known in Latin as “locus standi,” in other words, “standing to sue.” Here is the essential breakdown of this principle and how it might affect your legal rights.
What does it mean to have standing in court?
In layman’s terms, legal standing to sue is about who has the right to bring an action in court, not about the issues or facts of the actual case. Under Article III of the Constitution, courts can only hear actual “cases” or “controversies,” so standing law helps enforce this requirement by requiring that the party filing sue suffer an injury caused by the other party that can actually be addressed by the court.
It’s important to note that because standing law is established by the US Constitution, these requirements only apply to federal court lawsuits. For state standing requirements, you would look to state law.
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What are the three elements of standing to sue?
In the legal world, “element” is another word for a factor that the party must prove as part of a broader legal concept. In terms of standing, a party must prove three elements.
Injury in fact
Injury in fact means that a person has suffered an actual injury. This can be a physical injury or economic loss, the two most common types of injuries. However, this element can also include harm that is caused to conservation, aesthetic, or recreational interests as well. Importantly, in most cases, the injury must already have occurred, rather than being something hypothetical that might happen in the future.
Causation means that the injury to the plaintiff was caused by the person or party that is being sued. In other words, the party bringing the lawsuit needs to show that “but for” the defendant’s action or inaction, they would not have been injured. If the plaintiff cannot prove a connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury, they will not be able to prove that they have standing to bring the lawsuit.
Finally, redressability means that the court will actually be capable of doing something to correct or make up for the plaintiff’s injury. This can mean ordering the defendant to undo what it has done, or if that isn’t possible, imposing penalties or fines that would have a deterrent effect. It’s important to remember that the court’s jurisdiction does not extend outside of the United States, and courts can only order parties to take certain actions, so there is a limit on whether a court’s order can “redress” the injury the plaintiff has suffered.
When interpreting these standards, courts have also added other rules, often called “prudential standing,” to help them consistently apply standing law. These rules include limits on when taxpayers can sue for grievances that affect the general public, and the requirement that the injury be within the “zone of interest” a statute is intended to cover, among many others.
Why do courts require standing for a lawsuit to proceed?
At the most basic level, courts require standing because the Constitution requires them to enforce the law. However there are many policy reasons that courts require legal standing. Because of the requirement that federal courts only hear actual “cases or controversies,” these requirements prevent courts from litigating abstract political questions that have public significance, but have not actually yet harmed anyone. This means that courts can use their time and efforts only on those cases where they can have an actual impact.
Resource: The FREE Act (c/o Tara Melancon)
Standing to sue can be a difficult concept to prove, especially in cases dealing with identity theft or environmental harm. More recently, people who have had their personal information exposed through a data breach have run into standing problems when they are not able to show that they have been injured yet, but there is the possibility of “future injury” if their data is misused down the road.
Similarly, parties seeking to bring environmental lawsuits may have trouble proving that the defendant’s conduct caused the harm, especially on more controversial topics such as global warming. There is also the requirement that the party suing actually be the party who was harmed, because courts will not allow “third party standing,” which is suing on someone else’s behalf, unless that person has legally assigned their right to sue or in other limited circumstances.
Standing to sue is a complex legal topic that has many nuances. If you have questions about legal standing or the required elements, it’s best to contact an attorney who is experienced in that area.