On January 30, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted the Commission’s motion to dismiss a suit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and its executive director, Noah Bookbinder (collectively, plaintiffs). The plaintiffs had challenged the Commission’s earlier dismissal of an administrative complaint filed in 2012 against Murray Energy Corporation and the Murray Energy Political Action Committee (MECPAC), along with the company’s president and CEO Robert Murray and the MECPAC treasurer in his official capacity. The complaint alleged that the company had illegally coerced employees into making political contributions and illegally reimbursed employees for such contributions. The court held that the plaintiffs lacked judicial standing to bring the suit because they failed to demonstrate any cognizable injury that could be redressed by any FEC enforcement action.
Background and plaintiffs’ original challenge
In 2012, the plaintiffs filed an administrative complaint with the Commission (see MUR 6661) that alleged that Murray Energy had illegally coerced its employees into making political contributions to Murray Energy’s political action committee or federal candidates and threatened employees with termination if they failed to do so. Further, the complaint alleged that Murray Energy used its corporate treasury funds to make “incentive payments” that essentially reimbursed employees for certain donations they made. The plaintiffs’ administrative complaint alleged that these actions violated several provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act (the Act).
The Commission ultimately dismissed the administrative complaint and closed the file. The plaintiffs then filed suit in the district court on June 10, 2016, alleging that the Commission had acted contrary to law. The Commission argued that the case was not properly before the district court because the plaintiffs do not have necessary standing to bring the suit. Plaintiffs contended that although they are not affiliated with Murray Energy, they are harmed by its alleged violations of the Act because CREW cannot fulfill its mission when it is deprived of required information about the funding of political activities by entities such as Murray Energy.
District Court dismissal of challenge
In order to demonstrate standing to bring a challenge against a defendant under Article III of the Constitution, a plaintiff must establish that it has suffered an “injury in fact” that is not hypothetical; that the injury is fairly traceable to the challenged action(s) of the defendant; and that it is likely that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.
The district court held that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate they were harmed by the money spent by MECPAC or contributed by anyone affiliated with Murray Energy. The court also found the plaintiffs’ contention that they were denied information required by the Act was insufficient to afford them standing. After first questioning whether much of the alleged activity would even be reported in the event of an FEC enforcement action, the court explained that even if additional information were reported, the plaintiffs still would lack standing because they did not plead facts that indicated how they would use that information in a way that is concrete and particularized to them.
Since the plaintiffs did not have the standing necessary to challenge the alleged violations detailed in the administrative complaint, the district court granted the Commission’s motion to dismiss the case.