By Namrata Kotwani and Mark Casciari

Seyfarth Synopsis: In this post, we discuss the implications of the Fifth Circuit’s holding that a plaintiff challenging the ACA has Article III standing to bring suit when her injury amounts to an “increased regulatory burden,” even though she faces no other penalties.

The authors are well-aware of the COVID-19 pandemic and its human toll. We extend our well-wishes to the readers of this post, and hope for everyone’s wellness and safety, and a marked improvement to public health.

On March 2, 2020, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in California v. Texas, No. 19-840, which appeals the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that struck down the individual mandate to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). We previously shared an overview of the Supreme Court’s decision to grant certiorari here.

In Texas v. United States (as the case was styled previously), the Fifth Circuit held that the two individual plaintiffs who were self-employed residents of Texas had standing to challenge the ACA, despite not being subject to a financial penalty. There was no penalty because the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) set the penalty for not maintaining individual health insurance at zero dollars. According to the Fifth Circuit, the individual plaintiffs had standing because they demonstrated the “increased regulatory burden” that the individual mandate imposes.

As we have discussed, the Supreme Court is keenly interested whether a federal court plaintiff has a sufficient injury to sue in a federal forum when she can show no other harm besides a technical statutory violation. In Spokeo v. Robbins, the Supreme Court held that, although Congress can create federal claims, those claims can only be litigated in federal court as long as the plaintiff alleges a “concrete” injury (i) that affects the plaintiff in a personal and individual way, (ii) that is traceable to the defendant, and (iii) that is repressible by the federal judge. And now pending before the Supreme Court is Thole v. U.S. Bank, which will decide whether plan participants and beneficiaries in a fully-funded ERISA pension plan have Article III standing to sue a plan for alleged breaches of their statutory fiduciary duties. The Thole plaintiffs faced no injury in the form of reduced pension benefits but alleged that investment decisions made by the plan fiduciaries in breach of their duties of loyalty and prudence caused the plan to lose more than $758 million.

It is possible that the Supreme Court may dismiss the individual plaintiffs in Texas v. United States for lack of standing, finding that they have not been harmed by a mere obligation to maintain individual health insurance without a corresponding penalty. Such a ruling would seemingly comport with Spokeo, which suggests that private plaintiffs may not sue to enforce statutory obligations when they have not yet been harmed by violations of those obligations. ERISA fiduciaries thus might expect a drop in class action filings, especially as all private claims for breaches of fiduciary duty under Section 502(a)(2) and (a)(3) may be brought only in federal court, and not in a state court. A technical ERISA statutory violation may not be found “concrete and particularized,” or “actual or imminent,” and may instead be considered “conjectural” or “hypothetical,” buzz words used to determine the outcome of Spokeo arguments to dismiss.