What are the Standing Requirements for an Administrative Procedure Act Claim?

By Aaron Gott and Luis Blanquez

Federal administrative agencies sometimes act in ways that may harm your interests. Luckily, Congress has put in place some rules governing agency action through the Administrative Procedure Act. The APA sets forth stringent procedural standards for agency action and some substantive limitations.

More importantly, it provides for a way to enforce these important checks on agency power: judicial review. Judicial review is not automatic; it must be brought by someone who is adversely affected by the agency’s action.

Whether or not you can seek judicial review by bringing a claim against a federal administrative agency depends upon meeting a few requirements that together are called “standing.” If you meet the requirements, you have standing to seek judicial review.

Standing is also required in any federal case (and states typically have standing requirements, too). Federal courts are constrained by Article III of the U.S. Constitution, and standing is a component of the requirement that federal courts hear only “cases or controversies.”

A plaintiff suing anybody in federal court must meet these constitutional standing requirements, including a plaintiff suing a federal agency under the APA: (1) they must have suffered (or will suffer) an injury in fact; (2) the injury must be causally linked to the defendant’s (here, the agency’s) conduct; and (3) the injury must be capable of redress by the courts. If you meet these requirements, you are said to have “Article III standing,” a reference to the constitutional requirements. But the APA also has an additional requirement that has been imposed by the courts: (4) the interest the plaintiff seeks to protect must arguably be within the “zone of interests” intended by Congress to be protected in granting the agency the authority under which it acted.

Put another way, an APA plaintiff has standing if she (1) has Article III standing, and (2) has an interest within the “zone of interests” protected by federal law governing the agency’s action.

Standing may seen simple, but it has long been subject to much litigation in the courts. Let’s discuss each of these requirements in more detail. We’ll spend most of this article discussing the special “zone of interests” requirement that courts have imposed in APA cases, since.

Article III Standing

As we explained above, a plaintiff has Article III standing where she shows: (1) an injury in fact, (2) causation, (3) and redressability. Let’s break down each of these requirements.

Injury in Fact. A plaintiff meets the injury-in-fact requirement where she shows a concrete, particularized injury in fact.

But when is an injury not concrete and particularized?

In the US Supreme Court’s decision in Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (U.S. 1992), an association of wildlife lovers sued the Secretary of Interior after his department issued a rule changing how it would implement a provision of the Endangered Species Act. The provision required federal agencies to seek certification from the department that planned construction would not affect species on the endangered list. The new rule said the certification requirement applied only inside the United States, not to federal projects in other countries.

Two members of the plaintiffs claimed injuries: One had visited Sri Lanka ten years ago to see some endangered species, and wanted to go back as soon as the civil war there was over. Another visited Egypt five years before to see some tigers and leopards, and wanted to go back and visit them again sometime in the future. The Supreme Court held that the injury—the possibility they might not get to see these endangered species again at some point in the future—was too conjectural and hypothetical to be the sort of concrete and particularized injury in fact required by Article III of the Constitution.

Side note: Justices Kennedy and Souter wrote a concurring opinion in which they took issue not with the concrete and particularized aspect of the decision, but rather that the claimed future injury was not sufficiently imminent. A quick explanation: if the plaintiff is seeking damages (this isn’t usually the case in an APA case), she must show past injury in fact. If she is seeking declaratory or injunctive relief (which is usually true in APA cases), she must show that the injury in fact is imminent. According to the concurrence, it would have been enough had the two members purchased plane tickets to return to Sri Lanka and Egypt.

Causation. The plaintiff must also show a causal link from the defendant’s conduct to the plaintiff’s harm. Causation for standing purposes is similar to causation for other legal spheres—for example, many claims have a causation requirement. But it is important to note that the inquiry here is less restrictive than in most instances. There is no proximate cause requirement; all you really have to show is that the defendant’s conduct made an injury more likely or more serious.

Redressability. Even if you suffered an injury and you can link it to the defendant, then under rare circumstances courts may not be able to help you because the injury cannot be judicially redressed. Redressibility and causation are often the flip side of the same coin, as this example shows:

In Massachusetts v. EPA (U.S. 2007), the State of Massachusetts (among other plaintiffs) brought a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency alleging that the EPA had abdicated its statutory responsibility to regulate CO2. Massachusetts alleged it was losing its coastline—and its sovereign territory was thus shrinking—because the sea level was rising from climate change, which is attributable to CO2. The EPA argued that the injury was not caused by it and an order requiring it to regulate CO2 would not redress the injury because none of that would stop other countries who pollute more than the United States—such as India or China. The Supreme Court sided with Massachusetts: EPA’s failure to regulate CO2 contributes to climate change; if it regulated U.S. CO2, perhaps the sea would rise more slowly or not as much. Thus, an order requiring EPA to regulate CO2 would perhaps reduce or slow down the harm to Massachusetts, thus making its injury redressable.

Zone-of-Interests: the Prudential APA Standing Requirement

As explained above, the courts have imposed an additional, “prudential” standing requirement in APA cases. Under that standard, the plaintiff must be among those within the “zone of interest” protected by the statute granting the authority the agency used to take the action it took.

The Supreme Court once described the zone-of-interests test as

A guide for deciding whether, in view of Congress' evident intent to make agency action presumptively reviewable, a particular plaintiff should be heard to complain of a particular agency decision. In cases where the plaintiff is not itself the subject of the contested regulatory action, the test denies a right of review if the plaintiff's interests are so marginally related to or inconsistent with the purposes implicit in the statute that it cannot reasonably be assumed that Congress intended to permit the suit.

As you can see from this description, the zone-of-interests test is not meant to be especially demanding.

In Block v. Community Nutrition Institute (U.S. 1984), the Supreme Court considered a “milk market order” promulgated by the USDA that was challenged by a group of consumers, a milk handler, and a nonprofit association. Milk market orders were part of a statutory scheme that allowed the USDA to set the prices milk handlers paid milk producers (the law was enacted during the New Deal to protect dairy farmers from “intense competition”). The lower courts said the milk handler had standing, but not the consumers or the nonprofit association.

The Supreme Court agreed, finding that the consumers and nonprofits were not within the zone of interests Congress attempted to protect. The statute provided a specific mechanism for judicial review by milk handlers (note: the statute pre-dated the APA, so such a mechanism was necessary at the time). Moreover, the statute provided that handlers and producers were entitled to participate in hearings relating to the adoption and retention of market orders, but not consumers. Thus, the Court concluded, Congress’ decision to preclude consumers from the process meant their interests were not within the zone of interests it intended to protect.

Conclusion

The APA is an important check on federal administrative agencies because it constrains their behavior and subjects them to judicial review. But to seek judicial review challenging an agency’s action, you will need to show that you have both Article III standing and prudential zone-of-interests standing. While the standards may not seem rigorous, they are still the subject of much litigation.

You should also know there are other requirements that may limit your ability to bring an APA challenge to agency action including, for example, that the agency action must be final. If you would like to consider a challenge to a federal administrative agency’s rule or other action, contact us for a consultation.