by Gary Taylor
St. Louis Association of Realtors v. City of Ferguson
(Missouri Supreme Court, October 25, 2011)
In 2006, the City of Ferguson enacted an ordinance that created a regulatory fee and licensing system for owners of residential property within Ferguson who lease or rent their property to others. To qualify for a rental license, property owners must undertake building inspections, file affidavits stating whether any adult tenants are registered as sex offenders, retain a property manager residing within 25 miles of the rental property and pay licensing fees. The ordinance makes it unlawful for property owners to rent or lease their property without a license.
The St. Louis Association of Realtors (Association) is a trade association with approximately 9,000 members in the St. Louis metropolitan area. The association challenged the validity of the ordinance on both constitutional and statutory grounds. Its petition asserted that it has associational standing on behalf of its members because some of those members are affected by the ordinance directly, because it has an interest in protecting private property rights of the type affected by the ordinance, and because the relief it requested is a declaration that the ordinance is invalid rather than damages and so, its suit does not require joinder of individual members. The trial court dismissed the association’s petition, determining that it lacked standing to bring suit. The association appealed.
According to the Missouri Supreme Court “Reduced to its essence, standing roughly means that the parties seeking relief must have some personal interest at stake in the dispute, even if that interest is attenuated, slight or remote. A legally protectable interest exists only if the plaintiff is affected directly and adversely by the challenged action or if the plaintiff’s interest is conferred statutorily….An association that itself has not suffered a direct injury from a challenged activity nevertheless may assert ‘associational standing’ to protect the interests of its members if certain requirements are met. The association must demonstrate that (a) its members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right; (b) the interests it seeks to protect are germane to the organization’s purpose; and (c) neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members in the lawsuit.”
The Missouri Supreme Court determined that the association had associational standing. The association satisfied the first prong of the test because some of its members are property owners in Ferguson and, so, would have standing in their own right to challenge Ferguson’s ordinance. Specifically, three realtor-members testified that they own rental property within Ferguson and, as such, have felt a direct impact from the various requirements imposed by the ordinance. The Court disagreed with the city’s assertion that a majority of an association’s members must be able to prove standing in their own right.
In assessing the association’s satisfaction of the second prong the Court observed that the relevant question is whether the basis on which the individual association members were found to have standing under the first prong also is germane to the association’s purpose. “Mere pertinence between litigation subject and organizational purpose is sufficient. Requiring otherwise would undermine the primary rationale of associational standing, which is that organizations are often more effective at vindicating their members’ shared interests than would be any individual member.” The association supported its claim that it has an organizational interest in protecting property rights by introducing its by-laws, and mission statement, which both contain statements about the association’s stated purpose to protect members’ and homeowners’ property interests. The association also presented evidence that the association regularly engages in lobbying activities and fundraising to advance the interests of its members, including their interest in protecting real property rights. Further, two association representatives testified that the organization has initiated or participated in litigation challenging ordinances or defending its members cited for violating ordinances deemed objectionable to the association’s mission of protecting property rights.
Finally, the Court concluded that the third prong was met because the association merely sought prospective relief via a declaratory judgment that Ferguson’s ordinance was invalid. It was not pressing for damages or other relief that would require joinder of individual association members. “Where an association seeks only a prospective remedy, it is presumed that the relief to be gained from the litigation will inure to the benefit of those members of the association actually injured.”