Academic journal article The Review of Litigation

Mootness in the Class Action Context: Court-Created Exceptions to the "Case or Controversy" Requirement of Article III

Academic journal article The Review of Litigation

Mootness in the Class Action Context: Court-Created Exceptions to the "Case or Controversy" Requirement of Article III

Article excerpt


Article III of the United States Constitution limits federal court jurisdiction to actual "cases" or "Controversies."1 In applying this requirement, the United States Supreme Court has mandated that legal disputes before the federal courts be "presented in an adversary context and in a form historically viewed as capable of resolution through the judicial process."2 This restriction is fundamental to the concept of separation of powers, which forms the foundation of our federal system; it serves to prevent the federal courts from intruding into the policy spheres of the other branches of government.

Federal courts implement the Article III case or controversy requirement through the doctrine of standing. Though some elements of the standing doctrine "express merely prudential considerations that are part of judicial self-government, the core component of standing is an essential and unchanging part of the case-or-controversy requirement of Article III."3 In order to satisfy Article Ill's standing requirement, a plaintiff must show: "(1) it has suffered an 'injury in fact' that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2) the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant; and (3) it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision."4

The mootness doctrine, like the standing doctrine, also arises from Article Ill's case or controversy requirement. Because an actual "case or controversy" must exist for a court to have jurisdiction, courts have required the existence of a live dispute between parties with a "personal stake" in the outcome of the litigation as a prerequisite to justiciability.5 If at any time in a litigation these requirements are not met-whether because of a dismissal on the merits, a voluntary settlement between the parties, or an involuntary dismissal occasioned by a full and complete offer of judgment-a court must deem the case moot and dismiss it due to a lack of jurisdiction.6 As one federal district court recently noted: "It is axiomatic that a plaintiff without standing or with a moot claim does not present a case or controversy."7

Because the mootness doctrine is derived directly from the Constitution, it applies not only to individual litigants but also with equal force to litigants in a class action context.8 Class actions, however, significantly complicate the mootness analysis because when a class is certified, absent class members acquire a legal interest separate and distinct from the individual claims of the named class representatives.9 In addition, strict application of the mootness doctrine in the class action context may raise public policy concerns not present in an individual lawsuit due to, among other things, the potential for abuse of the doctrine in order to avoid class certification.

In practice, what actually happens when a named plaintiffs claim becomes moot depends on two factors, one substantive and one procedural. The first factor is timing-specifically, whether a motion for class certification was filed or decided before the named plaintiffs claims became moot. The second factor is the jurisdiction in which the named plaintiff brought suit because federal courts are split on a variety of the issues relating to the mootness doctrine in the class action context. However, the question remains: What should happen to a class action lawsuit when, for any of the reasons set out above, the named plaintiffs individual claims become moot?

As described in Part II below, the Supreme Court has provided some guidance on the intricacies of how courts should apply the mootness doctrine in the class action context. The Court has clarified that the mooting of a named plaintiffs claim after a district court has ruled on a class certification motion generally will not moot the class allegations.10 Beyond this outer bound, however, the Court has not yet spoken. …

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