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Campaign Legal Center v. Federal Election Commission

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 29, 2017

CAMPAIGN LEGAL CENTER, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN D. BATES United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs, Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, bring this action to challenge the Federal Election Commission's dismissal of five administrative complaints that plaintiffs filed before the agency. Those complaints alleged that various individuals and corporate entities had violated the Federal Election Campaign Act's disclosure provisions-particularly, its prohibition on making contributions "in the name of another, " see 52 U.S.C. § 30122, and its requirement that "political committees" file publicly available reports detailing their receipts and expenditures, id § 30104(a)-(b). Before this Court, plaintiffs contend that the Commission's dismissal was contrary to law and denied them information to which they are entitled under the Act. Unpersuaded, the Commission has moved to dismiss for lack of standing, arguing that plaintiffs have not adequately alleged an informational injury because they already possess all the information they claim to seek in this action. The Commission is correct as to some of plaintiff s' claims, but not correct as to others. Therefore, its motion to dismiss will be granted only in part.

         BACKGROUND

         Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 are both non-partisan, non-profit organizations that aim to support, implement, and defend campaign finance laws. See Compl. [ECF No. 1] ¶¶ 10, 14. To advance their cause, both groups engage in a wide variety of campaign-finance related activities. Campaign Legal Center provides information to voters about who is funding political communications, so that they might better "evaluate the full context of the message" being conveyed. Ryan Decl. [ECF No. 18-1] ¶ 9; see also id ¶¶ 8-15. It also participates in litigation concerning the legality of various campaign-finance laws, id ¶¶ 16-21, files administrative complaints and participates in agency rulemaking proceedings, see Compl. ¶ 10, and participates in the legislative process, sometimes by providing expert testimony or drafting reform proposals, see Ryan Decl. ¶¶ 28-32. Democracy 21 is engaged in similar activities. See Wertheimer Decl. [ECF No. 18-2] ¶ 2; see also id ¶ 3 (discussing Democracy 21's "Political Money Report, which is distributed to the media and to interested individuals and groups"). According to plaintiffs, campaign-finance information disclosed pursuant to the Act is an important resource in all these areas. See, e.g., Compl. ¶ 16. When that information is not available, plaintiffs contend that they are obstructed "from carrying out a central part of their mission." Id. The Federal Election Campaign Act "seeks to remedy any actual or perceived corruption of the political process through contribution and expenditure limitations as well as recordkeeping and disclosure requirements." Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Wash, v. FEC, 799 F.Supp.2d 78, 79 (D.D.C. 2011) ("CREW (2011)"). "In particular, the Act imposes extensive recordkeeping and disclosure requirements upon groups that fall within the Act's definition of a 'political committee.'" FEC v. Akins, 524 U.S. 11, 14 (1998); see52U.S.C. § 30101(4) (definition of political committee); id § 30104(b) (reports filed by political committees must include lists of donors who give more than $200 per year, contributions, expenditures, and other disbursements). In the same subchapter, the Act decrees that "[n]o person shall make a contribution in the name of another person, " "knowingly permit his name to be used to effect such a contribution, " or "knowingly accepta contribution made by one person in the name of another person." Id. § 30122. The Congressional purpose behind that prohibition is "to ensure the complete and accurate disclosure of the contributors who finance federal elections." United States v. O'Donnell, 608 F.3d 546, 553 (9th Cir. 2010).

         Plaintiffs' five administrative complaints alleged violations of these disclosure provisions. See 52 U.S.C. § 30109(a)(1) (permitting "[a]ny person" to file a complaint with the Commission alleging a violation of the Act). Each alleged that various individuals had made political contributions to super PACs using limited liability companies and other corporate entities as "straw donors, " thereby concealing the true source of the contributions from public disclosure. And each complaint alleged that the individual "true donor" and the corporate "straw donor" had violated the Act's prohibition on contributions in the name of another-the individual, by using the entities' name; the entity, by allowing its name to be used. See Compl. ¶ 2. In four of the five complaints, it was alleged that the "straw donors" had violated the Act by failing to register and file reports as "political committees." Id.

         After receiving a complaint, the Commission proceeds with an investigation only if four of its six members find "reason to believe" that the Act has been violated; otherwise, the complaint is dismissed. See 52 U.S.C. § 30109(a)(2). Here, after considering reports and recommendations prepared by the Commission's Office of General Counsel, three Commissioners concluded that all five complaints should be dismissed, so they were dismissed without further investigation. Compl. ¶¶ 3-4. Plaintiffs then filed this action under 52 U.S.C. § 30109(a)(8)(A), which provides a cause of action for "[a]ny party aggrieved by an order of the Commission dismissing a complaint filed by such party" under the Act. Their complaint here alleges that the Commission's decision dismissing their administrative complaints is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and otherwise contrary to law. Compl. ¶4 (citing Orloski v. FEC, 795 F.2d 156, 161 (D.C.Cir. 1986)).

         The Commission has now moved to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), asserting that this Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction because plaintiffs have not suffered an injury in fact as required for Article III standing. See Def's Mot. to Dismiss [ECF No. 13]. Plaintiffs, of course, disagree. As they see it, the Commission's action has deprived them of information to which they are entitled under the Act, thereby subjecting them to an informational injury. See, e.g., Pls.' Opp'n [ECF No. 18] ¶ 4. Alternatively (but relatedly), plaintiffs assert that they have organizational standing based on the adverse effect that the Commission's decision has had on their organizational interests. See Id. at 15-28.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Article III limits Congress' grant of judicial power to "cases" or "controversies, " and the doctrine of standing is rooted in that limitation. Akins, 524 U.S. at 20. The "irreducible constitutional minimum" of standing contains three elements. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992). "The plaintiff must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision." Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S.Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016) (citing Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560-61). The Commission's motion focuses primarily (perhaps exclusively) on the first of these elements: whether plaintiffs have suffered an injury in fact. "To establish injury in fact, a plaintiff must show that he or she suffered 'an invasion of a legally protected interest' that is 'concrete and particularized' and 'actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.'" Id. at 1548 (quoting Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560).

         As the party invoking federal jurisdiction, plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing standing, using "the manner and degree of evidence required at the successive stages of the litigation, " Lujan, 504 U.S. at 561. Here, at the pleading stage, the Court will accept as true the well-pleaded factual allegations in plaintiffs' complaint, draw all favorable inferences from those allegations in plaintiffs' favor, and ask whether they have stated a claim of standing that is plausible on its face. Arpaio v. Obama, 797 F.3d 11, 19 (D.C. Cir. 2015). The Court will also consider the declarations plaintiffs have submitted in support of their standing, see id, and the publicly available Commission documents that plaintiffs have cited in their opposition, [1] see EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624-25 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (in resolving motion to dismiss, court may consider matters of which it may take judicial notice); Pharm. Research & Mfrs. of Am. v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 43 F.Supp.3d 28, 33 (D.D.C. 2014) (court may take judicial notice of information posted on official public websites of government agencies); Kretchmar v. FBI, 32 F.Supp.3d 49, 55 (D.D.C. 2014) (court may take judicial notice of agency decisions contained in the administrative record).

         DISCUSSION

         The Supreme Court explained in Akins that a plaintiff "suffers an 'injury in fact' when the plaintiff fails to obtain information which must be publicly disclosed pursuant to a statute." 524 U.S. at 21; see also Pub. Citizen v. Dep't of Justice, 491 U.S. 440, 449 (1989) (holding that a failure to obtain information subject to disclosure under the Federal Advisory Committee Act "constitutes a sufficiently distinct injury to provide standing to sue"). "[T]he existence and scope of an injury for informational standing purposes is defined by Congress: a plaintiff seeking to demonstrate that it has informational standing generally 'need not allege any additional harm beyond the one Congress has identified.'" Friends of Animals v. Jewel, 828 F.3d 989, 992 (D.C. Cir. 2016) ("Friends of Animals II") (quoting Spokeo, 136 S.Ct. at 1549).

         In Akins, plaintiffs were a group of voters who disagreed with the Commission's determination that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, was not a "political committee" subject to the Act's recordkeeping and reporting requirements. Akins, 524 U.S. at 15-16. According to the Supreme Court, the "injury in fact" these voters suffered consisted of "their inability to obtain information-lists of AIPAC donors (who are, according to AIPAC, its members), and campaign-related contributions and expenditures-that, on [plaintiffs'] view of the law, the statute requires that AIPAC make public." Id. at 21. Following Akins, the D.C. Circuit "has recognized that a denial of access to information can work an injury in fact for standing purposes, at least where a statute (on the claimants' reading) requires that the information be publicly disclosed and there is no reason to doubt their claim that the information would help them." Friends of Animals v. Jewell, 824 F.3d 1033, 1040-41 (D.C. Cir. 2016) ("Friends of Animals I") (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Am. Soc. for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals v. Feld Entm't, Inc., 659 F.3d 13, 22 (D.C. Cir. 2011) (discussing this standard); Ethyl Corp v. EPA, 306 F.3d 1144, 1148 (D.C. Cir. 2002) (similar).

         "[T]he nature of the information allegedly withheld is critical to the standing analysis." Common Cause v. FEC,108 F.3d 413, 417 (D.C. Cir. 1997). For example, a plaintiff does not suffer an injury in fact if it seeks only information that the applicable statute does not require to be disclosed. See CREW v. FEC, 401 F.Supp.2d 115, 121 n.2 (D.D.C. 2005) affd,475 F.3d 337 (D.C. Cir. 2007) ("CREW (2007)") (plaintiffs seeking precise value of master contact list lacked informational standing in part because the Act "does not require the FEC to value an in-kind contribution in the form of a contact list"); Alliance for Democracy v. FEC, 362 F.Supp.2d 138, 145 (D.D.C. 2005) ("requiring the FEC to quantify the value of the [mailing] list would place an obligation on the FEC beyond what is required by the [Act]"). Nor will plaintiffs have standing merely to seek a legal determination based on factual information that is already publicly available. See Wertheimer v. FEC,268 F.3d 1070, 1074-75 (D.C. Cir. 2001) (no informational standing to pursue a legal determination that expenditures were "coordinated" when all relevant expenditures had been publicly disclosed); Vroom v. FEC,951 F.Supp.2d 175, 178-79 (D.D.C. 2013) (no informational standing to pursue legal determination that publicly reported expenditures exceeded applicable limitations); CREW (2011), 799 F.Supp.2d at 88-89 (no informational standing to pursue legal determination that publicly reported expenditures were "in-kind contributions"). In other words, a plaintiff has no legally cognizable interest in learning solely "whether a violation of the law has occurred, " Common Cause, 108 F.3d at 418, or in having the Commission "get the bad guys, " Nader v. FEC, 725 F.3d226, 230 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). Here, plaintiffs allege that they have been denied access to complete and accurate information concerning ...


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