Homeowners associations regularly file lawsuits to protect the interests of their members. These actions are oftentimes met with a challenge that the homeowners association has no right — or standing — to bring these claims, but instead the property owners themselves should have brought the lawsuit. So, that raises the question: Under what circumstances is a homeowners association allowed to take legal action on behalf of its members?
Under Missouri law, a party must have standing to bring a lawsuit. Standing roughly means that the parties seeking relief must have some personal interest at stake in the dispute, even if that interest is attenuated, slight or remote. To assert standing successfully, a plaintiff must have a legally protectable interest. A legally protectable interest exists only if the plaintiff is affected directly and adversely by the challenged action or if the plaintiff’s interest is conferred statutorily.
The principle of standing creates a problem for a homeowners association seeking relief on behalf of its members, because the association has almost never suffered a direct injury from the challenged activity. Accordingly, Missouri law has created a limited exception to the general standing rules. An association that itself has not suffered a direct injury from a challenged activity nevertheless may assert “associational standing” to protect the interests of its members if certain requirements are met. Courts use a three-part test to analyze whether the requirements for associational standing have been met in a particular case.
First, the association must demonstrate that its members would otherwise have standing to sue in their own right. To satisfy this first prong, an association claiming standing on behalf of its members 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. A justiciable controversy exists where the plaintiff has a legally protectable interest at stake, a substantial controversy exists between parties with genuinely adverse interests, and that controversy is ripe for judicial determination.
Next, the association must demonstrate that the interests it seeks to protect are germane to the organization’s purpose. In determining whether the germaneness prong is satisfied, the relevant question is whether the basis on which the individual association members were found to have standing under the first prong is also germane to the association’s purpose. Missouri courts have made it clear that the germaneness requirement is undemanding, and the interests the association seeks to protect need not be central to the organization’s purpose. Instead, mere pertinence between litigation subject and organizational purpose is sufficient. Stated differently, the association need only provide some evidence that the issues at stake in the relevant litigation are of concern to the association.
Finally, the association must show that neither the claim asserted nor the relief requested requires the participation of individual members in the lawsuit. With respect to this third prong, the Missouri Supreme Court has held that where an association seeks only a prospective remedy, it is presumed that the relief to be gained from the litigation will inure to the benefit of those members of the association actually injured. Accordingly, requests made by an association for prospective relief generally do not require the individual participation of the organization’s members. Conversely, where an association seeks a remedy such as money damages, the participation of its individual members is necessary to determine the particular damages to which each affected member is entitled.