The Supreme Court will not be settling the Circuit Court dispute over the legal standing of self-proclaimed Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “testers,” leaving unresolved the Circuit Court split on the issue.
On Tuesday, the Court released its decision to vacate judgement in the case of Acheson Hotels, LLC v. Laufer and direct the lower court to dismiss the case as moot in light of the plaintiff’s voluntary dismissal of the case due to the misconduct of an attorney with whom she has worked on other lawsuits.
Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson each offered separate concurring opinions. The other seven justices all signed onto the majority opinion.
In 2020, Deborah Laufer sued Acheson Hotels — which owns and operates Coast Village Inn and Cottages in Wells — for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to provide appropriate accessibility information on their website and in their reservation system.
This lawsuit was originally one of seven that Laufer filed in Maine that year, and one of more than 600 that she has filed over the past few years — primarily against small hotels and motels across the country.
As a self-described ADA “tester,” Laufer had no intention of actually visiting the lodging establishments against which she pursued legal action. Rather, she combs the internet looking for lodging websites that — in her judgement — fail to meet the standards set by the ADA in order to file lawsuits against the establishments.
Background on the Case
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that “no individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns…or operates a place of public accommodation.”
In other words, the ADA protects disabled individuals from discrimination that would prevent them from gaining equal access to and enjoyment of “public accommodations,” including hotels.
Additionally, the ADA directs the Attorney General to develop regulations designed to carry out various provisions of the ADA.
One such rule that has been developed is the “Reservation Rule,” which requires that hotels “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.”
A business can found to be in violation of the ADA if they fail to accommodate disabled individuals “in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary.”
In 2021, Maine’s district court moved to dismiss Laufer’s lawsuit against Acheson Hotels on the grounds that she had no standing to bring a claim, as she had no plans to actually visit the hotel and therefore suffered no injury.
Laufer then brought the dismissal to the First Circuit Court of Appeals which reversed the lower court’s decision, arguing that she did have standing since her lack of intent to visit the hotel in question did not negate the presence of injury.
Acheson Hotels then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court nearly a year ago asking them to reconsider the Circuit Court’s decision.
The Supreme Court agreed to review the case on March 27 of this year. Generally speaking, the Court is asked to review somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,000 cases each year and only accepts between 100 and 150.
Laufer’s Decision to Voluntarily Dismiss
Earlier this summer, a lawyer with whom Laufer has worked on many of her other lawsuits — Tristan Gillespie — came under fire for engaging in unethical behavior.
Gillespie recently received a six-month suspension from the Maryland District Court for his work with Laufer on many of these lawsuits, wherein — among other things — he extracted inordinately high attorney fees from the hotels and motels that were the subjects of these lawsuits.
It is important to note, however, that Gillespie was not directly involved with the particular case that is currently before the Supreme Court.
Laufer Requests That the Supreme Court Declares Her Case Moot
Earlier this summer — after news broke of Gillespie’s misconduct — Laufer attempted to have the Supreme Court dismiss her case as moot on account of the fact that “the
allegations of misconduct against Mr. Gillespie could distract from the merits of her ADA claims and everything she has sought to achieve for persons with disabilities like herself.”
She also stated that the lower court’s decision, which was in her favor, ought to also be vacated on the grounds of mootness. Laufer further noted that she is abandoning all other active ADA-related litigation in which she is involved.
Acheson Hotel’s Response to the Dismissal Request
Acheson Hotels responded to this request, arguing that the Supreme Court ought to “standing issue on which it granted certiorari.”
“Laufer’s litigation program was recently revealed to have been an unethical extortionate scheme, and the unapologetic purpose of Laufer’s effort to moot this case is to ensure that she or similar plaintiffs can continue pursuing similar schemes,” Acheson Hotels wrote. “Permitting Laufer to pull the plug on the case at this point would be a disaster for the rule of law and would be extraordinarily unfair to Acheson.”
“Laufer is abandoning her case to pave the way for Laufer and similar plaintiffs to resume their campaign of extortionate ADA suits against unwitting small businesses without the hindrance of an adverse ruling from this Court,” Acheson Hotels argued.
On August 10, the Supreme Court denied Laufer’s request for dismissal, stating that they would reconsider the question of mootness at oral argument in addition to the legal question already at the center of this case.
The Majority Opinion
The Supreme Court’s majority opinion declared that “judgement is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit with instructions to dismiss the case as moot.”
“Laufer’s case against Acheson is moot, and we dismiss it on that ground,” the opinion stated.
The Justices also emphasized that their decision to vacate judgement in this case does not necessarily mean that they will do so in the future.
“We emphasize, however, that we might exercise our discretion differently in a future case,” the opinion says.
The Justices asserted the belief that Laufer’s decision to voluntarily dismiss her case was not an attempt to avoid having a judgement made in her case, as was suggested by Acheson Hotels.
“We are sensitive to Acheson’s concern about litigants manipulating the jurisidcition of this Court,” the opinion says. “We are not convinced, however, that Laufer abandoned her case in an effort to evade our review.”
This opinion — written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett — was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Justice Samuel A. Alito, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Concurring Opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas
Justice Thomas argued in a concurring opinion that the Court ought not to leave the question of standing unresolved.
“We can — and should — address the question on which we granted certiorari,” Thomas argued, noting that the case has already been fully briefed and the Court has already heard oral arguments on its merits.
“We should address Laufer’s standing, rather than resolve this case on mootness,” Thomas said. “Beyond answering this question for our colleagues on the Courts of Appeal and District Courts, we should answer it for Acheson Hotels, which has spent significant time and resources fully briefing a question that will now go answered.”
Thomas also took issue with the majority opinion’s reasoning that Laufer’s decision to voluntarily dismiss her case was not an attempt to manipulate the Court.
“The circumstances strongly suggest strategic behavior on Laufer’s part,” Thomas said. “Laufer’s logic is thus that she dismissed her claim — and the Court should no longer address whether she had standing — because an attorney she hired in an entirely different case engaged in misconduct.”
“An unrelated attorney’s conduct does nothing to change the analysis required to determine a plaintiff’s standing,” Thomas said.
“We should not resolve this case about standing based upon mootness of Laufer’s own making,” Thomas declared.
Although Thomas appears to categorically disagree with the majority opinion, his contribution is nonetheless a concurring opinion — not a dissenting one — on account of the fact that he ultimately agreed with their decision to vacate and remand.
His contention lies not in the Court’s decision but rather in the reasoning behind it.
“I respectfully concur in the judgement because I would vacate and remand, with instructions to dismiss for lack of standing,” Thomas wrote at the conclusion of his opinion.
Concurring Opinion by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson
Justice Jackson also offered a concurring opinion in this case, citing a disagreement with the way the majority reached its decision to give the lower Court instructions to vacate their judgement.
“In my view, when mootness ends an appeal, the question of what to do with the lower court’s judgement, if anything, raises a separate issue that must be addressed separately,” Jackson wrote. “Mootness and vacatur are distinct concepts.”
Jackson then goes on to explain her view that “vacatur does not — and cannot — automatically follow from mootness.”
“That mootness can sometimes leave parties unable to appeal does not bear on the continued validity of those lower court opinions in any respect,” Jackson said.
Just because a case has become moot, Jackson asserts, it does not invalidate a lower court’s judgement. “We do not erase past precedents just because those cases cease to be live, litigated matters,” she wrote.
According to Jackson, in order for a lower court’s decision to be vacated, it must be demonstrated that a distinct harm would flow from a party’s inability to appeal a prior decision, “other than having to accept the law as the lower court decided it.”
Jackson then acknowledges, however, that the Court’s decision to instruct the vacatur of the lower court’s decision is actually consistent with prior precedent.
The Court has an established practice of directing lower courts to vacate their judgements when mootness occurs as a result of “unilateral action” on the part “of the party who prevailed in the lower court.”
“I concur in the judgement on the basis of that precedent,” Jackson concluded, “despite my own views of this practice, because respondent’s voluntary dismissal is the sort of ‘unilateral action’ that we have previously deemed adequate for vacatur.”
It remains to be seen if the Court’s decision to declare this case moot will ultimately affect the legal strategy of similar litigants going forward, as some have feared.
Because the Justices did not provide guidance on the issue of legal standing for self-proclaimed “testers,” it is not clear at this time if or when the Court will again have the opportunity to settle the existing Circuit Court split.