Spokeo: The Quasi-Hohfeldian Plaintiff and the Non-Federal Federal Question
22 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2017 Last revised: 17 Jul 2019
Date Written: July 15, 2019
In Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, the Supreme Court held that, even when a federal statute creates a cause of action, Article III requires federal courts to ensure that the plaintiff has suffered a sufficiently concrete injury before exercising jurisdiction over the claim. Spokeo invites us to re-think the traditional dichotomy between Hohfeldian plaintiffs, who have suffered a concrete and particularized injury, and non-Hohfeldian (or ideological) plaintiffs, who have suffered no such harm. The case requires recognition of a third category: the quasi-Hohfeldian plaintiff, who has suffered a particularized injury because its statutory rights were violated, but no concrete harm because the violation caused no real damage.
At first blush, Spokeo appears to bar quasi-Hohfeldian plaintiffs from federal court. Congress can easily allow federal courts to exercise jurisdiction over their claims, however, by statutorily redesignating such plaintiffs as relators, relabeling statutory damages as civil fines, and recharacterizing private rights of action as qui tam claims brought on behalf of the Government.
Even under current law, Spokeo will not eliminate quasi-Hohfeldian plaintiffs’ claims under federal statutes, but simply cause them to be litigated in state court instead. Courts should construe federal statutes creating private rights of action as implicitly limited to Hohfeldian plaintiffs, absent a clear statement in the statute’s text or legislative history to the contrary, for three reasons. First, the constitutional avoidance canon counsels in favor of such a restriction. A federal law creating a cause of action for anyone whose statutory rights are violated, including quasi-Hohfeldian plaintiffs, would have a substantial number of unconstitutional applications in federal court under Spokeo. Second, by enacting 28 U.S.C. § 1331, a sweeping grant of federal-question jurisdiction to federal district courts, Congress demonstrated its intent that they be able to exercise jurisdiction over federal claims. Other laws therefore should not be construed as authorizing federal claims that fall outside district courts’ jurisdiction. Finally, allowing quasi-Hohfeldian plaintiffs to enforce federal laws raises serious questions under the President’s Article II Take Care Power. Federal statutes therefore should not be interpreted as creating “non-federal” federal questions.
Keywords: standing, Hohfeld, Hohfeldian plaintiff, ideological plaintiff, Article III, justiciability, concreteness, ASARCO, federal court, state court, judicial power, Article II, Take Care, executive power, cause of action, statutory damages, attorneys fees, qui tam, relator
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