Justices dismiss “civil rights tester” case

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OPINION ANALYSIS

The justices’ dismissed Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Laufer as moot on Tuesday. (R Boed via Flickr)

In its first opinion of the 2023-24 term in an argued case, the Supreme Court on Tuesday morning threw out a dispute over whether a self-appointed “civil rights tester” has a legal right to file a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act alleging that a hotel had failed to provide information about its accessibility on its website. The court unanimously agreed that the case was moot – that is, no longer a live controversy – because the plaintiff in the case, Deborah Laufer, had voluntarily dismissed her lawsuit in the lower court.

In an opinion by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court acknowledged concerns by the hotel, which lost in the lower court and had asked the justices to weigh in, “about litigants manipulating the jurisdiction of this Court.” But the court explained that it was “not convinced, however, that Laufer abandoned her case in an effort to evade our review,” and it added that it might “exercise our discretion differently in a future case.”

Laufer, who lives in Florida and has multiple sclerosis and vision impairments, filed her lawsuit against Acheson Hotels, which at the time operated an inn in Maine, in 2020. She contended that the inn had violated a regulation issued under the ADA known as the “reservation rule,” which requires hotels to describe the accessibility of their facilities on their websites so that people with disabilities have enough information to determine whether they can use the facilities.

When Laufer’s case came to the Supreme Court, the question was whether she had a legal right to sue Acheson at all when she had no plans to visit the inn. But by the time the court heard oral argument in her case in October, the focus of her case had shifted to her request, filed in July, to dismiss the case and invalidate the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit in her favor.

Laufer, who has filed hundreds of lawsuits against hotels in the last several years, explained that she had dismissed her case in the lower court and all of her other cases because one of her attorneys, who did not represent her in this case, had been suspended from the practice of law in the Maryland federal courts for defrauding hotels in other, similar cases.

The hotel, however, urged the justices to go ahead and decide the case and rule that Laufer did not have a legal right to sue. The hotel’s lawyer told the court at oral argument that if it dismissed the case at this point in the litigation, it would effectively be endorsing “a legal strategy of filing large numbers of lawsuits, settling almost all of them, and abandoning the rare case that threatens to create adverse precedent so as to facilitate the filing of another round of lawsuits.”

In a four-page opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh, the court on Tuesday granted Laufer’s request. Stressing that Laufer “voluntarily dismissed her pending ADA cases after a lower court sanctioned her lawyer” and “represented to this Court that she will not file any others,” the court agreed with Laufer that her case is “moot, and we dismiss it on that ground.”

Justice Clarence Thomas would not have dismissed the case on the ground that the case was moot, noting that the hotel had spent “significant time and resources fully briefing a question that will now go unanswered” and observing that “the circumstances strongly suggest strategic behavior on Laufer’s part” in dismissing the case in the lower court.

Instead, Thomas would have dismissed the case on the ground that Laufer lacked a legal right to sue. Laufer’s “lack of intent to visit the hotel or even book a hotel room elsewhere in Maine eviscerates any connection to her purported legal interest in the accessibility information required by the Reservation Rule.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson agreed with her colleagues that the case was moot, but she wrote separately to question the court’s practice, known as Munsingwear vacatur, of automatically vacating the lower court’s judgment. In her view, before a court invalidates the lower court’s decision on fairness grounds, the party seeking to have the decision invalidated ‘must explain what harm — other than having to accept the law as the lower court stated it — flows from the inability to appeal the lower court decision.”

This article was originally published at Howe on the Court.

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