For an organization to sue to redress a perceived wrong, the organization must demonstrate that it has standing to sue, meaning that it is the proper party to bring the claim. One of the key requirements of standing is that the plaintiff must show that he or she will be or is likely to be injured by the action objected to. Environmental groups often demonstrate standing by showing that some member of the organization has an interest in, uses or benefits from the environmental resource that is threatened. See, e.g. Sierra Club v Morton, 405 US 727 (1972); Summers v Earth Island Institute, 555 US 488 (2009).
In PETA v State Zoological Park of Western Maryland, 4th Cir. 2021, 2021 WL 305546, the court found that the stated purpose of the group was grounds for standing. PETA alleged that the treatment of certain animals in the zoo constituted an unlawful “taking” of those animals in violation of the Endangered Species Act. Defendants moved to dismiss for lack of standing, arguing that PETA would not be injured by the alleged taking. PETA argued that it is injured because its mission is to protect animals from abuse and thus it was required by its mission to protect these animals. By expending time and money to protect these animals, PETA’s ability to protect other animals was diminished and thus, PETA was injured by the taking. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals accepted PETA’s argument, despite the apparent circularity of the reasoning, i.e. PETA was injured by the action only because it decided that its purpose was to stop the action.
The Fourth Circuit’s reasoning was based on Supreme Court precedent that an organization has standing to object to an action if the action impairs the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission. Haven’s Realty Corp. v Coleman, 505 US 363 (1982). In this case, Haven’s – an organization dedicated to equal opportunity in housing – sued to prevent certain racial steering practices. The organization claimed that the alleged racial steering practices frustrated its efforts to provide housing counseling and thus, impaired its ability to fulfill its mission.
The analogy is not a perfect one, as the plaintiff in Haven’s identified a specific portion of its mission that was impaired, i.e. racial steering impaired its ability to provide counseling. In PETA, however, it appears that plaintiff’s mission was to stop defendants from doing what they do. In the housing case, the mission was broader than to simply stop what defendants were doing. When the mission is simply the opposite of alleged wrongful act, it appears that plaintiff can simply define itself as someone whose mission is to stop the action complained of and they seem to have given themselves standing. It is not clear how far this goes or how sound that reasoning is because the standing requirement would be obliterated if a plaintiff could show that it is injured by defendants actions simply by showing that its mission is to object to defendant’s action.