Volume 30, Issue 7
This Report summarizes opinions issued on March 21 and 28, 2023 (Part I); and cases granted review on March 27, 2023 (Part II).
The Supreme Court Report is published biweekly during the U.S. Supreme Court Term by the NAAG Center for Supreme Court Advocacy.
Part I: Opinions
- Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, 21-887. The Court unanimously held that a public-school student was not required to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) before pursuing claims for failure to accommodate his disability against a school district under other federal laws for relief not available under IDEA. Miguel Luna Perez, who is deaf, attended the Sturgis Public School District for 11 years. He and his family allege that during that time, he failed to receive adequate accommodation for his disabilities, and also that the school district misrepresented his educational progress. Perez and his family filed a complaint against the school district under IDEA. Before an administrative hearing on that complaint took place, however, the parties reached a settlement in which, among other things, the school district would provide prospective equitable relief including paying for Perez to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf. Perez then filed a federal lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) seeking compensatory damages. The district court dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that IDEA barred Perez’s ADA claim because he did not first exhaust all of IDEA’s administrative dispute resolution remedies. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. In an opinion by Justice Gorsuch, the Court reversed and remanded.
Section 1415(l) of IDEA provides that, as a general rule, “nothing in the [IDEA] shall be construed to restrict” the abilities of individuals to seek “remedies” under the ADA or other federal laws that protect the rights of children with disabilities. But the subsection qualifies that rule by also providing that, “before the filing of a civil action under such [other federal] laws seeking relief that is also available under this subchapter, the procedures under [IDEA] shall be exhausted.” The Court here interpreted IDEA’s exhaustion requirement as limited to situations where an individual pursues suit under another federal law for remedies that IDEA also provides: “[IDEA’s] exhaustion requirement applies only to suits that ‘see[k] relief . . . also available under’ IDEA.”
The Court explained that although this interpretation would treat the term “remedies” as synonymous with the term “relief,” such a reading was consistent with the ordinary reading of those terms, with other provisions in IDEA that treat the terms similarly, and with other federal laws that consider those two terms as synonyms. Applying those principles, the Court ruled that Perez’s case did not trigger the exhaustion requirement because Perez brought suit under the ADA for compensatory damages, a form of relief that IDEA does not provide. The Court thus held that nothing in IDEA barred Perez’s ADA suit, and reversed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit.
- Wilkins v. United States, 21-1164. By a 6-3 vote, the Court held that the 12-year time bar contained in 28 U.S.C. §2409a(g) for claims against the United States under the Quiet Title Act is a nonjurisdictional claims-processing rule. In 1962, the United States obtained an easement on the Robbins Gulch Road in rural Montana. According to the government, the easement gave the public the right to access the road. Petitioners in this case, Larry Wilkins and Jane Stanton, bought properties along the road in 1991 and 2004. They alleged that the public use intruded on their enjoyment of their land. In their view, the easement did not give members of the public the right to use the road and required the United States to maintain and patrol it. In 2018, petitioners sued the United States under the Quiet Title Act. The government moved to dismiss, claiming that the action was untimely under §2409a(g), which provides that “any civil action . . . shall be barred unless it is commenced within twelve years of the date upon which it accrued.” A claim accrues “on the date the plaintiff or his predecessor in interest knew or should have known of the claim of the United States.” The district court granted the motion, finding that §2409a(g)’s 12-year limitation period was jurisdictional. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. In an opinion by Justice Sotomayor, the Court reversed and remanded, holding that §2409a(g) is a nonjurisdictional claims-processing rule.
The Court began by discussing the differences between procedural rules and jurisdictional bars. Procedural or claims-processing rules “seek to promote the orderly progress of litigation,” and “generally include a range of ‘threshold requirements that claimants must complete, or exhaust, before filing a lawsuit.’” A party may lose a procedural defense through forfeiture, waiver, or estoppel if it does not raise the issue at the proper time. In contrast, jurisdictional bars may be raised at any point during litigation and “courts have a duty to consider them sua sponte.” Jurisdictional defects cannot be waived or estopped.
To distinguish between the two, the Court had previously adopted the “clear statement rule,” under which a time bar is not jurisdictional unless “traditional tools of statutory construction . . . plainly show that Congress imbued a procedural bar with jurisdictional consequences.” Applying that rule to §2409a(g), the Court held that the 12-year limitation period was an ordinary claim-filing rule. The statute “speaks only to a claim’s timeliness” using “mundane statute-of-limitations language.” And the jurisdictional grant of the Quiet Title Act is in a separate statute. Without a clear statement to the contrary, the Court assumed that Congress created a nonjurisdictional claim-filing deadline with §2409a(g).
The Court rejected the government’s claim that the Court had previously held that compliance with §2409a(g) was jurisdictional. The Court acknowledged, as it has before, that some older decisions “misused the term ‘jurisdictional’ to refer to nonjurisdictional prescriptions.” It will defer to a “definitive” holding in an older case that a rule is jurisdictional. But a “[d]rive-by jurisdictional rulin[g],” in which the Court “simply states that the court is dismissing ‘for lack of jurisdiction’ when some threshold fact has not been established,” has “no precedential effect.” (Quotation marks omitted.) The Court applied this rule to each of the government’s cases in turn.
The Court noted that Block v. North Dakota ex rel. Board of Univ. and School Lands, 461 U.S. 273 (1983), did not turn on a question of jurisdiction. Simply mentioning that the lower courts “had no jurisdiction to inquire into the merits” of untimely claims was the sort of “drive-by jurisdictional ruling” that is not entitled to precedential effect. The Court disagreed with the dissent and the government that this statement reflected the Court’s view that the time limit was a condition on a waiver of sovereign immunity and therefore jurisdictional. Both Block and related precedent entertained the idea that equitable doctrines like tolling, waiver, and estoppel might apply to limitation periods for suits against the government, which would not be possible if they were jurisdictional bars. Similarly, United States v. Mottaz, 476 U.S. 834 (1986), did not consider whether the 12-year limitation period was jurisdictional. Although that decision noted when recounting the procedural history of the case that the United States had raised the issue of timeliness in a petition for rehearing (thus suggesting that it was an issue that could not be waived or abandoned), the Court did not engage with the issue or “pause over its passing remark.” Finally, the Court in United States v. Beggerly, 524 U.S. 38 (1998), carefully analyzed §2409a(g) to determine if its 12-year limit was subject to equitable tolling. This care would have been wasted if the Court believed (or had already held) that the limit was jurisdictional, because jurisdictional limitations cannot be tolled. In sum, held the Court, none of the government’s cases definitively held that the time limitation in §2409a(g) was jurisdictional. Because “neither this Court’s precedents nor Congress’ actions established that §2409a(g) is jurisdictional,” the Court ruled that it was a claims-processing rule.
Justice Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion, which Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joined. The dissent began with the premise that conditions on waivers of sovereign immunity are jurisdictional and must be “strictly observed.” Because the Quiet Title Act waives the sovereign immunity of the United States, petitioners must therefore strictly follow the 12-year limitation period contained in the Act for courts to have jurisdiction; the government consented to be sued only if plaintiffs followed the rules. The dissent also believed that the government’s cases had definitively established that §2409a(g) was jurisdictional. The Block Court “made clear that it understood the Act’s statute of limitations to arise in the context of a waiver of sovereign immunity,” and, because it remanded the case for lower courts to determine whether suit was barred, its description of the limit as jurisdictional “was an integral part of the Court’s instructions on remand.” Mottaz noted that the limitation was a “central condition of the consent” that the United States gave to be sued, considered the government’s “late-raised statute of limitations argument,” and held that no other statute “conferred jurisdiction” over the claim. Finally, the dissent found that Beggerly was “at best, ambiguous” because although it entertained the argument that the 12-year limitation period was subject to tolling, it ultimately held that the doctrine did not apply.
Part II: Case Granted Review
- Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Laufer, 22-429. The Court will resolve whether “a self-appointed Americans with Disabilities Act ‘tester’ ha[s] Article III standing to challenge a place of public accommodation’s failure to provide disability accessibility information on its website, even if she lacks any intention of visiting that place of public accommodation.” Respondent Deborah Laufer has a disability and is a self-appointed “ADA tester.” She views online hotel reservation systems around the country to determine if they comply with a regulation implementing the ADA that requires hotels to “identify and describe accessible features in the hotels and guest rooms offered through its reservations service in enough detail to reasonably permit individuals with disabilities to assess independently whether a given hotel or guest room meets his or her accessibility needs.” 28 C.F.R. §36.302(e)(1)(ii). If a system does not, she sues the hotel owners and operators. To date, she has filed more than 600 lawsuits. Laufer sued Acheson Hotels, which operates the Coast Village Inn and Cottages in Maine. Laufer alleged that she visited the online reservation for Coast Village, but it failed to provide sufficient information as to whether Coast Village was ADA-accessible. Laufer agreed for the purposes of appeal that she did not intend to stay at Coast Village. The district court dismissed her suit for lack of standing. The First Circuit reversed. 50 F.4th 259.
The First Circuit held that “the denial of accessibility information was an actionable Article III injury.” It viewed “Laufer’s feelings of frustration, humiliation, and second-class citizenry” as “‘downstream consequences’ and ‘adverse effects’ of the informational injury she experienced” even though she did not intend to stay at the hotel. The court acknowledged a circuit split: the Second, Fifth, and Tenth Circuits had found no standing in similar circumstances, while the Eleventh, joined now by the First, had found standing.
Petitioner Acheson Hotels argues that the First Circuit’s holding was contrary to Supreme Court precedent―specifically, TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez, 141 S. Ct. 2190 (2021)―which requires a plaintiff to demonstrate a “concrete harm” to establish Article III standing. According to petitioner, Laufer did not suffer a concrete harm because she “does not need and will never use” the information on its website. And under TransUnion, an intangible injury of the sort Laufer alleges satisfies Article III’s concreteness requirement only when it bears “a close relationship to harms traditionally recognized as providing a basis for lawsuits in American courts.” Laufer’s claim fails that test, asserts petitioner, because the closest analogues―intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress―both require more extreme misconduct or “physical contact or danger.” Petitioner also denies that Laufer suffered any particularized injury or faced imminent harm from visiting the website.
Laufer agrees that the circuits are divided on the question presented and that Supreme Court review is therefore warranted. She maintains, though, that the ADA was based on “real world harms inherent to disability discrimination.” She claims that the circuit split is due to confusion as to how Supreme Court precedent treats standing for the purposes of discrimination, informational injuries, and “downstream consequences” like stigma and dignitary harm. She analogizes her claim to that in Havens Realty Corp. v. Coleman, 455 U.S. 363 (1982), where the Court found that a tester had standing to pursue a Fair Housing Act claim. She claims that a proper reading of precedent would allow her to obtain relief for a statutorily recognized harm.
NAAG Supreme Court Advocacy Center Staff
- Dan Schweitzer, Director and Chief Counsel, (202) 326-6010
- Todd Grabarsky, Supreme Court Fellow
- Van Snow, Supreme Court Fellow
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