On a day of surprises at the U.S. Supreme Court, it was a terse ruling on Article III standing — the gateway that determines which plaintiffs may and may not be in federal court — that could have greater consequences than the widely-covered healthcare ruling. Because many class actions that were formerly resolved in state courts are now channeled into federal courts by the Class Action Fairness Act, advocates for consumers and workers feared that the Court took up Edwards v. First American Corp. in order to craft an onerous Article III “actual injury” standard that would lead to a rash of dismissals in these cases, without further recourse for the plaintiffs. A 5-4 majority opinion imposing such a rule would be consistent with recent decisions increasing the burden on plaintiffs in federal court.
The at-issue statute in Edwards was the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), which prohibits “kickbacks” and other quid pro quo arrangements between title companies and other entities in connection with real estate closings. See Edwards v. First Am. Corp., 610 F.3d 514 (9th Cir. 2010) (available here). Under RESPA, a party to a real estate transaction is entitled to relief when such an arrangement occurs, even if the party suffers no financial loss or diminution of services as a result of the RESPA violation. Denise Edwards did not allege financial or other loss from the kickback arrangement that First American, her title company, engaged in, but she nonetheless sued First American under RESPA, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated. See id. at 516-17. The defendant argued that Edwards lacked standing to pursue a claim because she did not suffer any injury. Id. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument, holding that Edwards had standing to sue First American because RESPA provided her a statutory right to do so. Id. at 518.
What followed was a two-year legal odyssey: the granting of defendant’s writ of certiorari, months of anticipation, oral arguments, copious briefing as to a Ninth Circuit decision that many believed would be reversed, all culminating in the Supreme Court’s issuance of a two-sentence opinion, “The writ of certiorari is dismissed as improvidently granted. It is so ordered.” First Amer. v. Edwards, 567 U. S. ____ (2012) (available here). With that, the appeal in Edwards was over, with a swiftness and simplicity that belied the concern the case had engendered.