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Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

June 2, 2017





         In this action, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (“SFFA”) alleges that Harvard College (“Harvard”) employs racially and ethnically discriminatory policies and procedures in administering its undergraduate admissions program, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Presently pending before this Court is Harvard's motion to dismiss for lack of standing pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). [ECF No. 187]. Harvard filed the instant motion on September 23, 2016, and SFFA opposed it on October 21, 2016 [ECF No. 204].[1] For the reasons stated below, the motion is DENIED.


         SFFA filed its Complaint with this Court on November 17, 2014 [ECF No. 1], and Harvard filed its Answer on February 18, 2015 [ECF No. 17]. SFFA's Complaint sets forth two types of allegations. First, SFFA contends that the general manner in which Harvard considers race in its undergraduate admissions program violates the Equal Protection Clause. As opposed to using race as a mere “plus” factor in admissions decisions, SFFA claims that Harvard engages in prohibited “racial balancing.” Second, SFFA alleges that Harvard's policies invidiously discriminate against Asian-American applicants in particular because, by admitting only a limited number of Asian-American applicants each year, Harvard, in effect, forces Asian-American applicants to compete against each other for those spots. Consequently, a large number of otherwise highly-qualified Asian-American applicants are allegedly denied admission to Harvard on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

         SFFA is an Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3) organization whose claimed mission is to defend human and civil rights secured by law, including equal protection rights, through litigation or other lawful means.[3] SFFA brings this action on behalf of its members. Its membership is composed of a coalition of applicants and prospective applicants to institutions of higher education, along with their parents and other individuals, including at least one Asian-American student member who applied for and was denied admission to Harvard's 2014 entering class (the “Applicant”). Complaint ¶¶ 12-24.[4] According to SFFA, this Applicant intends to transfer to Harvard when the school stops using its race-based discrimination admissions policy.

         The Complaint requests the following relief: declaratory judgments that Harvard's admissions policies and procedures violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and that any use of race or ethnicity in the educational setting violates the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI; permanent injunctions prohibiting Harvard from using race as a factor in future undergraduate admission decisions and requiring it to make its admissions decisions in a race-blind manner; attorneys' fees and costs; and any other relief this Court finds appropriate.


         Because Harvard's Rule 12(b)(1) challenge to SFFA's constitutional standing implicates this Court's subject matter jurisdiction, see P.R. Tel. Co. v. T-Mobile P.R. LLC, 678 F.3d 49, 57 (1st Cir. 2012), the Court is not restricted to the four corners of the Complaint and “may consider whatever evidence has been submitted, such as the depositions and exhibits, ” Aversa v. United States, 99 F.3d 1200, 1210 (1st Cir. 1996); see also Torres-Negron v. J & N Records, LLC, 504 F.3d 151, 163 (1st Cir. 2007); Katz v. Pershing, LLC, 806 F.Supp.2d 452, 456 (D. Mass. 2011), aff'd, 672 F.3d 64 (1st Cir. 2012) (“A court is permitted to look beyond the pleadings to determine jurisdiction on a 12(b)(1) motion, hence the formality of converting the motion to one for summary judgment need not be observed.”).


         A. Associational Standing

         The Constitution gives the judiciary power to hear only “Cases” and “Controversies.” U.S. Const. art. III, § 2, cl. 1. The Supreme Court has interpreted this requirement to mean that courts may decide only “cases and controversies of the sort traditionally amenable to, and resolved by, the judicial process.” Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 102 (1998). A plaintiff's standing to sue is “part of the common understanding of what it takes to make a justiciable case.” Id. Therefore, “the absence of standing sounds the death knell for a case.” Microsystems Software, Inc.v. Scandinavia Online AB, 226 F.3d 35, 39 (1st Cir. 2000). The standing determination is “claim-specific, ” meaning that an individual plaintiff “must have standing to bring each and every claim that [he or] she asserts.” Katz v. Pershing, LLC, 672 F.3d 64, 71 (1st Cir. 2012).

         Article III standing requires that three conditions be satisfied. “First and foremost, there must be alleged (and ultimately proved) an ‘injury in fact.'” Steel Co., 523 U.S. at 103 (quoting Whitmore v. Arkansas, 495 U.S. 149, 155 (1990)). This injury “must be concrete in both a qualitative and temporal sense, ” “distinct and palpable” as opposed to “abstract, ” and “actual or imminent” as opposed to “conjectural or hypothetical.” Whitmore, 495 U.S. at 155 (internal quotations and citations omitted). Second, standing requires causation, defined as a “fairly traceable connection between the plaintiff's injury and the complained-of conduct of the defendant.” Steel Co., 523 U.S. at 103. Finally, standing requires “redressability-a likelihood that the requested relief will redress the alleged injury.” Id.

         “[A]n association may have standing solely as the representative of its members even in the absence of injury to itself, in certain circumstances.” Camel Hair & Cashmere Inst. of Am., Inc. v. Associated Dry Goods Corp., 799 F.2d 6, 10 (1st Cir. 1986) (citing Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 511 (1975)). Specifically, “an association has standing to bring suit on behalf of its members when: (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.” Hunt v. Wash. State Apple Advert. Comm'n, 432 U.S. 333, 343 (1977). The first two Hunt prongs are constitutional, and the third is prudential. United Food & Com. Workers Union Local 751 v. Brown Grp., Inc., 517 U.S. 544, 555-57 (1996). Only one member need have individual standing in order for an organization to satisfy the first Hunt factor. See Playboy Enters., Inc. v. Pub. Serv. Comm'n of P.R., 906 F.2d 25, 34 (1st Cir. 1990) (“[T]he Supreme Court has never required that every member of an association have standing before it can sue on behalf of its members. ‘The association must allege that its members, or any one of them, are suffering immediate or threatened injury as a result of the challenged action of the sort that would make out a justiciable case had the members themselves brought suit.'” (quoting Warth, 422 U.S. at 511)).

         The Hunt Court also held that an organization that was not “a traditional voluntary membership organization” because it did not have any formal members could still have associational standing if its constituents “possess[ed] all of the indicia of membership in an organization.” Hunt, 432 U.S. at 344-45.[5] Indicia of membership, as identified by the Hunt Court, include that the purported members “alone elect the members of the Commission; they alone may serve on the Commission; they alone finance its activities, including the costs of this lawsuit, through assessments levied upon them.” Id. Ultimately, the Hunt Court found that the Commission at issue in that case had associational standing even though it was not a typical membership organization, at least in part because “[i]n a very real sense . . . the Commission represents the State's [apple] growers and dealers and provides the means by which they express their collective views and protect their collective interests.” Id. at 345. Harvard argues that the indicia-of-membership test articulated in Hunt should be applied to all organizations, while SFFA argues that it is not applicable to membership organizations, like the SFFA.

         B. Nature of the SFFA

         The SFFA, a nonstock corporation, was formed under the laws of Virginia on July 30, 2014. [ECF No. 188, Ex. A (“Blum Tr.”) at 11:23-25]. According to SFFA's bylaws, as amended on June 19, 2015 (hereinafter, the “Bylaws”), [6] the organization's purpose is “to defend human and civil rights secured by law, including the right of individuals to equal protection under the law, through litigation and other lawful means.” [ECF No. 188, Ex. B (“Bylaws”), art. II]. The Board of Directors, which manages the business and affairs of SFFA, is composed of four Board-Elected Directors and one Member-Elected Director. Bylaws, art. IV, §§ 4.01, 4.02. The Board-Elected Directors are elected by a majority vote of the directors then in office, and the Member-Elected Director is elected by a majority vote of ...

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