By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Sarah K. Bauman

Seyfarth Synopsis: On August 30, 2021, in Massone, et al. v. Washington, No. 20-CV-7906, 2021 WL 3863081(S.D.N.Y. Aug. 30, 2021), the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Security Officers Union (the “Union”) on behalf of its members (“CSOs”) against the U.S. Marshals Service and contractor Centerra Group LLC (“Defendants”), alleging that Defendants failed to implement adequate COVID-19 precautions.  The Court held that the President of the Union lacked standing to sue because the complaint sought merely monetary damages — rather than equitable relief — on behalf of individual CSOs allegedly harmed by the protocol. The ruling exemplifies that monetary recovery for workplace COVID-19-related injuries is better suited for an individualized lawsuit, unless the relief is sought on behalf of the association itself and is equitable in nature.

Case Background

On September 25, 2020, on behalf of approximately 2,200 members, the President of the Union (“Plaintiff”) filed a lawsuit against Defendants, claiming that the COVID-19 precautions in place failed to protect Union members (“CSOs”) from infection. Id. at *1-2. Plaintiff alleged that Defendants failed to properly sterilize the working and common areas in federal courthouses and failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment, resulting in COVID-related deaths, sickness, and quarantines of certain CSOs. Id. at *1. Plaintiff also alleged that Defendants retaliated against various CSOs who complained, by making threats of disciplinary action, such as suspension and permanent termination. Id. The complaint sought monetary damages on behalf of the CSOs who suffered COVID-19-related injuries or were retaliated against by the Defendants. Id. at *4.  Defendants moved to dismiss for lack of standing and for failure to state a claim.  Id. at *1.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the Defendants’ motion to dismiss.  Id.  at *3.  The Court did not reach the merits of the case because it found that Plaintiff lacked both organizational and representative standing to sue.  Id.  The Court honed in on Plaintiff’s alleged injuries for alleged monetary damages suffered only by (1) those CSOs who were allegedly exposed to or contracted COVID-19, and (2) those CSOs who allegedly were retaliated against by Defendants.  Id. at *4.  According to the Court, “[n]either of these is an injury to the Union itself, and thus neither can support a finding that the Union” had standing.  Id.

In making this determination, the Court recognized that Plaintiff brought suit in his capacity as President of the Union.  Id. at *3.  Accordingly, the Court held that Plaintiff was required to demonstrate that the Union had either organizational (also referred to as associational) standing to sue in its own right or representative standing to sue on behalf of its members.  Id.  Recognizing that an association must meet the same standing test that applies to individuals, the Court concluded that Plaintiff failed to demonstrate associational standing.  Id. at *3-4.  The Court agreed with the Defendants’ argument that the injuries alleged were sustained by individual CSOs, not the union itself.  Id. at *3.  The Court reasoned that, contrary to the Plaintiff’s contention, it was “not enough that the defendant allegedly [] engage[] in a wrong that affects each union member individually and equally.”  Id. at *4.  Rather, Plaintiff was required to an allege an injury sustained by the Union as a whole, and it failed to do so.  Id. 

The Court also analyzed whether Plaintiff sufficiently asserted representative standing on behalf of the Union.  Id.  The Defendants argued that Plaintiff could not satisfy the test for organizational standing because the Complaint exclusively sought monetary damages for injuries allegedly suffered by “unidentified, individual CSOs.”  Id.  The Court agreed with Defendants’ position.  Id.  at *5.  Relying on U.S. Supreme Court authority and a number of decisions from within the Second Circuit, the Court recognized the widely-accepted jurisprudential routine of “declin[ing] to find representative standing when a plaintiff brings a claim on behalf of its members for monetary damages.”  Id.  Since Plaintiff merely sought damages for particular CSOs, rather than “a declaration, injunction, or some form of prospective relief,” the Court found the Plaintiff also lacked representative standing and granted the Defendants’ motion to dismiss.  Id. at *4-5.  The Court reasoned that any injures the CSOs suffered were “peculiar to the individual member concerned, and both the fact and extent of injury would require individualized proof.”  Id. at *5.

Finally, the Court also denied Plaintiff’s request to amend the lawsuit to address the standing issues, but held that Plaintiff could refile the request so long as it attached an amended complaint that cured the deficiencies of the original.  Id. 

Takeaways For Employers

The ruling in Massone v. Washington, demonstrates that unions (and other organizations) will have a difficult time suing employers in federal court for monetary damages allegedly suffered by their individual members/employees.  As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it is important for employers to be aware of the standing limitations address in Massone, when faced with similar lawsuits.  This holds true not only for New York employers, but also all employers located within the United States, as emphasized by the Court’s reliance on several U.S. Supreme Court decisions in dismissing the case for lack of standing.