Vail Daily column: ‘Standing’ ensures a modicum of fairness
May 10, 2011
In the parallel universe of law, standing means something entirely different than having your head up, your middle unplugged from your easy chair, and your splayed feet planted firmly on the green, green grass of home.
At law, standing is the right and ability to sue.
“Say what? I’ve seen enough TV,” you say. “Anyone can sue anyone.” You clench your Marlboro jaw and bluster, “This, for God sake, is America!”
Anyone can sue anyone, but whether or not the suit may be sustained is another question entirely.
“Standing to sue” means that the party bringing suit has sufficient skin in the game – has a sufficient stake in the matter – in an otherwise justiciable controversy to obtain judicial resolution of that controversy. In other words, the thing being sued over is “close” enough to the person suing that he has a reasonable stake in being compensated for the loss.
Let’s take an example. An extreme one, just to make the point.
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Say you enter into a contract with my best pal, Vaclav, to purchase Vaclav’s 1979 Lada. A Lada is sort of the Russian equivalent of a Fiat. The two of you reach terms, agree on a price, etc. Later, you have second thoughts. You’ve read about Russian-made cars and your blood has turned to ice. You advise Vaclav that you have unilaterally determined not to buy his car and, damn the consequences, you breach the contract. Vaclav is apoplectic but lacks the spine to sue you for his losses. I, an altruist and Vaclav’s pal, determine to take up the mantle for my spineless friend. I file suit against you, pillorying you before the court for the damages you caused poor Vaclav. Your breach of the contract has reduced poor Vaclav to penury during the slow off-season.
The only problem is, I’ve got no skin in the game, no dog in the fight.
The dispute is between you and Vaclav. No matter my intentions, I have suffered no loss at your hands. If poor, benumbed Vaclav won’t grow a pair and take you on himself, he will simply forfeit his right and neither I nor anyone else may stand it for him. Neither, having suffered no loss, may I assert any independent right. I can certainly file suit, but if and when the suit is contested for lack of standing – as it surely would be – you, poor Vaclav’s tormentor, will soon be celebrating my comeuppance.
“Standing” is a concept utilized to determine if a party is sufficiently affected so as to ensure that a justiciable controversy is presented to the court. Standing is a jurisdictional issue which concerns the power of a particular court to hear and decide cases and does not concern the ultimate merits of the substantive claims involved in the action.
Let’s step back just a sec here. The “jurisdiction” of a particular court essentially means that court’s powers, what it is invested under law with the authority to decide. It means the power and authority of the court to hear and determine judicial controversies.
Accordingly, the issue of standing has to do with the court’s jurisdiction notwithstanding whether or not the underlying claim has merit. If I lack standing to maintain an action, we never get to the merits of the case.
In our example, no doubt poor Vaclav has been wronged. You have, by your evil and intentional misconduct, breached an enforceable agreement and cast poor Vaclav into at least temporary destitution. The only problem is, is if Vaclav will not stand up for himself, neither I, his cousin Boris, nor his aunt Bepa may do so in his stead. The exception here is if poor Vaclav is adjudged an incompetent, in which case another may be appointed to assert his (but not their own) rights for him and on his behalf.
Standing is a requirement that the plaintiffs have been injured or have been threatened with injury by the action complained of and focuses on the question of whether the litigant is the proper party to prosecute the lawsuit. It does not concern the issue itself, only who is the proper party to advance the ball of litigation.
Stated simply, “standing” ensures at least a modicum of fairness. And checks a potential donnybrook of needless, vexatious, and attenuated litigation.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.