Telecommunications Research & Action Center on Behalf of Checknoff v. Allnet Communication Services, Inc.

Citation806 F.2d 1093
Decision Date05 December 1986
Docket NumberNo. 86-5071,86-5071
Parties, 55 USLW 2322 TELECOMMUNICATIONS RESEARCH & ACTION CENTER on Behalf of R. CHECKNOFF, M. Vogel and other Members, Appellant, James D. Wareham v. ALLNET COMMUNICATION SERVICES, INC.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (Civil Action No. 85-01876).

Samuel A. Simon, Washington, D.C., for appellants.

Millard Frederick Ottman, Jr., with whom Mollie A. Murphy, Washington, D.C., was on the brief, for appellee.

Before WALD, Chief Judge, RUTH BADER GINSBURG and BORK, Circuit Judges.

Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge RUTH BADER GINSBURG.

Concurring opinion filed by Circuit Judge BORK.


This case requires us to address the standing of an association to pursue an action for damages on behalf of its members. Plaintiff-appellant Telecommunications Research and Action Center (TRAC), a not-for-profit membership organization concerned with promoting fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory rates for communications services, sued Allnet Communications, Inc. (Allnet) for maintaining an allegedly unlawful dual rate structure for several months in 1984. Specifically, TRAC stated that from June 1, 1984 until December 31, 1984, Allnet had charged customers different rates for the same service depending upon when the customer first subscribed to the service, and without allowing subscribers to choose between the two rate structures. 1 TRAC also complained that Allnet The district court granted Allnet's motion to dismiss and held: (1) under the circumstances here, TRAC lacks standing to claim damages on behalf of its members; (2) the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction, is the proper forum of first resort on the question whether Allnet impermissibly provided "like" or the "same" service at different rates. 3 We affirm the district court's judgment dismissing the complaint. We pretermit the novel question whether a case of this nature can be installed directly in court with no prior stop at the FCC. 4 We rest our decision on the ground that TRAC's damage claim was properly dismissed for want of standing.

                had changed its rates without public notice and without amending its filed tariff. 2   TRAC sought an award of damages against Allnet on behalf of TRAC's allegedly overcharged members.  The organization had approximately 12,000 individual members nationwide when it commenced this action.  Counsel had the names of only five or six TRAC members who subscribed to Allnet during the relevant time period

"Even in the absence of injury to itself, an association may have standing solely as the representative of its members." Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 511, 95 S.Ct. 2197, 2211, 45 L.Ed.2d 343 (1975). The Supreme Court stated in a pathmarking decision, Hunt v. Washington State Apple Advertising Commission, 432 U.S. 333, 343, 97 S.Ct. 2434, 2441, 53 L.Ed.2d 383 (1977), that an association has standing to bring suit on behalf of its members when three conditions are met:

(a) [the association's] members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right; (b) the interests [the association] 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.

See also International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers v. Brock, --- U.S. ----, ----, 106 S.Ct. 2523, 2529, 91 L.Ed.2d 228 (reaffirming Hunt three-part test).

The first two Hunt conditions are satisfied in this case. The five or six TRAC members so far identified as Allnet subscribers in the relevant period would have standing to contest the alleged overcharges. TRAC, as an organization, is dedicated to the promotion of fair and nondiscriminatory rates for telephone and other communications services, and TRAC assails the Allnet rate differentials as unfair and discriminatory.

TRAC's standing therefore turns on satisfaction of the third Hunt condition. We hold that the money damages claims TRAC seeks to advance are the kind that ordinarily require individual participation, so that TRAC may not proceed in the format it has selected.

While the Supreme Court has not yet confronted and decided the issue, lower federal courts have consistently rejected association assertions of standing to seek monetary, as distinguished from injunctive or declaratory, relief on behalf of the organization's members. See, e.g., Simer v. Rios, 661 F.2d 655, 682 (7th Cir.1981), cert. denied, 456 U.S. 917, 102 S.Ct. 1773, 72 L.Ed.2d 177 (1982); United Steelworkers v. University of Alabama, 599 F.2d 56, 59 (5th Cir.1979); Organization of Minority Vendors, Inc. v. Illinois Central Gulf R.R., 579 F.Supp. 574, 590 (N.D.Ill.1983). TRAC's counsel, in response to the court's inquiry at oral argument, addressed the state of precedent candidly. He could cite no decision on associational standing that allowed the association to proceed, as representative of a member or members, on a claim in which the immediate relief sought was damages. He added, however, that the decisions denying an organization's standing to represent its members in suits for monetary relief did not recite a per se rule. Nor do we recite such a rule today.

TRAC invites us to select this case to set the precedent not yet made because the alleged injury, TRAC contends, would not require individualized proof. Cf. Warth, supra, 422 U.S. at 515-16, 95 S.Ct. at 2213-14 (associational standing must be denied where injury alleged is "peculiar to the individual member concerned, and both the fact and extent of inquiry would require individualized proof"). Damages due the overcharged Allnet subscribers, TRAC maintains, can be calculated by applying a simple formula to the telephone calling data residing in Allnet's computers. 5 Were TRAC to succeed in establishing Allnet's liability, TRAC asserts, all that would remain would be to "fill in the blanks," a procedure which hardly "requires" the participation of the individuals affected.

We think we are not at liberty to break new ground in this case, and believe that the Supreme Court's reference to the need for "individual participation" in Hunt implied something more than individual in-court testimony to establish the fact and extent of injury. A court, in matters such as this, writes for a genre of cases, not for one day and case alone. While we have no reason to doubt the dedication of TRAC, we are mindful that

[t]he number of members in [an] organization with a concrete stake in the outcome may be so small that th[e] theoretical identity [between the organization and its members] disappears.... Moreover, [an association] may have reasons for instituting a suit ... other than to assert rights of its members.

Brock, supra, --- U.S. at ----, 106 S.Ct. at 2537 (Powell, J., dissenting); cf. id. at ----, 106 S.Ct. at 2530 (majority opinion) ("many" union members had concrete stake in outcome).

Here, TRAC has identified only a handful--five or six--of its 12,000 members with a concrete stake in the outcome. More tellingly, TRAC's counsel stated at oral argument that the form of action the organization selected was influenced by this consideration: "[I]t didn't involve the kind of notice requirements and expense that a class action might." This colloquy took place:

Court: Is it the notice--the cost of giving notice--that led you away from the class action?

Counsel: That's correct in that there were virtually no up-front costs to the association in utilizing this remedy....

Were this suit brought as a class action on behalf of injured Allnet subscribers, it would fit under the category described in subdivision (b)(3) of Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The court in such a case must ascertain whether the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the entire class, FED.R.CIV.P. 23(a)(4), and must see to it that class members learn of the action through "the best notice practicable." FED.R.CIV.P. 23(c)(2); see Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156, 94 S.Ct. 2140, 40 L.Ed.2d 732 (1974); cf. Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts, 472 U.S. 797, 105 S.Ct. 2965, 2975, 86 L.Ed.2d 628 (1985) (fourteenth amendment due process clause requires that state class action statute afford absent plaintiffs notice and an opportunity to "opt out" of action in which relief claimed is money damages). TRAC would avoid those responsibilities and safeguards. It asks to be declared representative of the few (five or six), not the many, whether the comparison group is all TRAC members or all Allnet subscribers June-December 1984. Even in an equitable relief context, TRAC's plea for standing would stray from the core concept of associational representation. See, e.g., NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449, 459, 78 S.Ct. 1163, 1170, 2 L.Ed.2d 1488 (1958) (association has standing to assert members' rights "because it and its members are in every practical sense identical [and it] is but the medium through which individual members seek to make more effective the expression of their own views"); Robinson v. Conslisk, 385 F.Supp. 529, 538 (N.D.Ill.1974) ("Since the League is the collective embodiment of its members, the League has standing to protect its members' rights against encroachment by third parties."); cf. Action Alliance for Senior Citizens v. Shapp, 400 F.Supp. 1208, 1213 (E.D.Pa.1975) (court grants standing to association to seek injunctive relief to benefit 6 of its 3,500 members, while noting that "we might feel more confident of [the association's] taking a vigorous, adversarial stance had plaintiff been able to identify more members adversely affected by the Act"). See generally Note, Associational Standing and Due Process: The Need for An...

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