Northern District of California Dismisses “Varsity Blues” Class Action Due to Lack of Standing.

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On May 29, Judge Davila of the Northern District of California granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss two putative class actions filed against James Singer—the alleged perpetrator of the highly publicized “Varsity Blues” college admissions bribery scandal—and several universities where students were allegedly admitted after paying bribes.

  • In Bendis v. Singer and Tamboura v. Singer, 30 plaintiffs sued Singer, several entities he allegedly controlled, and eight universities: the University of Southern California, Stanford University, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of San Diego, the University of Texas at Austin, Wake Forest University, Yale University, and Georgetown University. [Disclosure: King & Spalding represented Yale University in this litigation.]
  • The plaintiffs were (i) prospective students who were denied admission to the universities, and (ii) parents who allegedly paid their application fees. They asserted various claims for violations of state consumer protection laws and negligence. The plaintiffs alleged, among other things, that they would not have paid an application fee to apply to the universities had they known the admissions process was tainted by bribery. They sought to represent a putative nationwide class of all individuals who paid application fees (but were denied admission) to the defendant universities between 2012 and 2018.
  • Two of the university defendants (the University of San Diego and the University of Texas at Austin) were voluntarily dismissed at an early stage of the case. The remaining defendants moved to dismiss, contending among other things that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue and otherwise failed to plead viable claims. Plaintiffs responded that they suffered both economic harms (i.e., paid application fees) and ideological harms (i.e., the lack of a fair and objective application process).
  • Judge Davila granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue, as they could not show that they were affected in a particularized way by the alleged bribery scheme.
    • Even accepting as true the allegation that Singer bribed university officials and manipulated the college admissions process, the court recognized “the clear standing principle that an injury in fact cannot just be based on some morally reprehensible act.” Rather, there must be a link between the bad act and the plaintiff to avoid the “generalized grievance” that courts have routinely rejected for purposes of Article III standing.
    • Significantly, to the extent Singer was able to obtain admission for individuals who would not have otherwise been admitted, the slots that were “compromised” were slots reserved for student athletes. None of the named plaintiffs, however, alleged that they were seeking admission as student athletes. Thus, the required “link” between Singer’s alleged actions and the plaintiffs themselves was lacking.
  • Notably, Judge Davila dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims without leave to amend, holding that repleading would be futile because additional allegations supporting the plaintiffs’ theory would not change the underlying fatal flaw: that the named plaintiffs conceded that the bribery scheme involved slots reserved for college athletes, while the general admission slots were unaffected.
    • Moreover, because the original named plaintiffs lacked standing, the court could not grant leave to add a new plaintiff. As the court explained, when subject-matter jurisdiction is lacking at the commencement of the suit, a court cannot cure the jurisdictional defect by allowing the intervention of a substitute plaintiff who does have standing.
  • Read the court’s opinion here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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