D.C. Circuit on Constitutional Standing: No Shortcuts Allowed

A class of United Airlines customers challenged the airline’s anti-scalping policy as an antitrust violation in Dominguez v. UAL Corp., and the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the airline. In an opinion by Judge Griffith that was unsealed today [PDF], the D.C. Circuit also ruled against the plaintiff class. But the court of appeals scolded the district court for reaching the merits without first assuring itself that the named plaintiff had standing.

That the merits of a particular claim may be clear is no reason to avoid the constitutionally required inquiry into this limit on our jurisdiction. It is no doubt tempting for courts to bypass jurisdictional issues and address the merits of disputes, especially where the merits question may be easily answered, but standing is a check that reinforces the constitutional principle that some disputes are beyond our authority to resolve.

Because the class representative could not show that he would have actually paid a lower fare absent the airline’s No Transfer Policy, his asserted injury was too speculative to establish an Article III case or controversy.  It didn’t help that he’d purchased his tickets as a discounted package–something he may not have been able to do in a secondary market.  And his expert admitted the airline could impose prohibitive name-change fees to discourage ticket transfers–a factor he had left out of his analysis.

The court could have mentioned another reason for insisting on standing before ruling against a plaintiff on the merits:  The merits of a claim may look less clear when it is brought by a plaintiff who has gone to the trouble to prove up an injury in fact.  Dismissing a plaintiff on standing grounds avoids making bad precedent for a future plaintiff who may be able to make a stronger case.

Dominguez v. UAL Corp., No. 10-7138 (Jan. 17, 2012) (Griffith, J., joined by Henderson & Tatel, JJ.)

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