The future of the Obama Presidential Center remains uncertain after last week’s court ruling allowed a citizen suit against it to proceed. But businesses facing citizen suits should take comfort in courts’ continued willingness to consider—and occasionally grant—motions to dismiss citizen suits for lack of standing.
NGO and citizen plaintiffs seeking to establish standing to enforce environmental laws generally face a low bar. For example, in Sierra Club v. Franklin County Power of Illinois, 546 F.3d 918 (7th Cir. 2008), standing was found where a citizen plaintiff occasionally visited a lake three miles from a proposed power plant and testified that she would stop visiting if the plant were built. But the recent decision involving the proposed Obama Presidential Center (Obama Center) demonstrates that while the bar is low, it does exist, and plaintiffs who fail to allege that they will be personally injured by alleged environmental harms will trip over it.
A park advocacy group and three individual citizens sued to block construction of the Obama Center in a public park on Chicago’s South Side in May of 2018. The plaintiffs alleged that leasing park land to a private foundation for construction of the Obama Center would result in a loss of scarce open space and important migratory bird habitat along the city’s lakefront.
The city and the Chicago Park District filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. In response, the plaintiffs cited a “real and immediate” threat of “aesthetic and environmental harm” to the park. But the Northern District of Illinois agreed with defendants, noting that the plaintiffs failed to allege that they “use, visit, or otherwise enjoy” the park. Because the complaint only alleged harm to the park, and not harm to the plaintiffs themselves, the court found that the plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the alleged environmental harms.
Nevertheless, the case is also a warning to developers and industries affected by citizen suits that creative plaintiffs can employ a variety of legal doctrines to establish the standing required to bring suit under environmental and land use laws. While the court declined to find standing as a result of harm to the environment, it did find that the plaintiffs, as Illinois taxpayers, have standing to challenge decisions regarding public park land, which is held “in the public trust” under state law. For that reason, the suit will go forward on the merits.