ArtIII.S2.C1.6.6.4 Assignees of a Claim

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State, between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

An assignment of a legal claim occurs when one party (the “assignor” ) transfers its rights in a cause of action to another party (the “assignee” ).1 The Supreme Court has held that a private litigant may have standing to sue to redress an injury to another party when the injured party has assigned at least a portion of its claim for damages from that injury to the litigant. The Supreme Court in the 2000 case Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. United States ex rel. Stevens held that private individuals may have Article III standing to bring a qui tam civil action in federal court under the federal False Claims Act (FCA) on behalf of the federal government if authorized to do so.2 The FCA imposes civil liability upon “any person” who, among other things, knowingly presents to the federal government a false or fraudulent claim for payment.3 To encourage citizens to enforce the Act, in certain circumstances, a private individual, known as a “relator,” may bring a civil action for violations of the Act. Such plaintiffs sue under the name of the United States and may receive a share of any recovered proceeds from the action.4 Under the FCA, the relator is not merely the agent of the United States but an individual with an interest in the lawsuit itself.5

Ordinarily, if the relator’s financial interest in the outcome of the case were merely a byproduct of the suit itself, there would be no injury sufficient for standing.6 In Stevens, however, the Supreme Court recognized a distinction that confers standing upon qui tam plaintiffs in FCA cases. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Court, determined that assignments of claims are distinguishable from cases in which a litigant has a mere financial interest in the outcome of the suit because the assignee-plaintiff actually owns a stake in the dispute as a legal matter.7 Justice Scalia drew support for this distinction from the long-standing historical practice of the government assigning a portion of its damages claim to a private party and allowing that party to assert the injury suffered by the federal government as a representative of the United States.8 The Court noted the “long tradition of qui tam actions in England and the American colonies,” 9 concluding that “Article III’s restriction of the judicial power to ‘Cases’ and ‘Controversies’ is properly understood to mean ‘cases and controversies of the sort traditionally amenable to, and resolved by, the judicial process.’” 10

Eight years after deciding Stevens, the Supreme Court again found that an assignee of a claim had standing, even when the assignee had promised to remit all of the money it recovered in the proceedings to the assignor.11 In Sprint Communications Co. v. APCC Services, Inc., payphone operators had assigned their legal claims for money owed to them by long-distance communications carriers to third-party collection agencies.12 The agencies were authorized to bring suit on behalf of the payphone operators and promised to pay all of the proceeds of the litigation to the payphone operators for a fee.13 The Court held that these collection agencies had standing to pursue the operators’ claims because of the long history of courts’ acceptance of such claims.14 Assignment was sufficient to transfer the injury to the collections agencies, and the injury to the operators that had been transferred to the collection agencies would be redressed by a favorable judicial decision, even if the agencies would subsequently pay all of the proceeds to the operators.15

The Stevens and Sprint cases could have broader implications for Article III standing doctrine, as they suggest a way in which the constitutional limitations on standing may be bypassed through the assignment of rights to a third party.16 For instance, if Congress enacts a federal statute recognizing an injury to the federal government that otherwise satisfies Article III’s requirements, it may assign a portion of its claim to a private party, thereby potentially giving that plaintiff standing to sue as a representative of the United States.17 This is essentially the operation of the False Claims Act.18 However, it is unclear whether every such statute would necessarily resolve all Article III standing concerns. In Stevens and Sprint, the Court gave significant weight to the lengthy history of courts recognizing the types of assignments at issue when determining that the litigants in those cases had standing to sue.19 Moreover, there may be a number of concerns about the constitutionality and practicality of using assignments to delegate core government functions (e.g., criminal prosecutions) to private parties when courts have not historically recognized claims based on such assignments, including concerns about interference with the Executive Branch’s Article II powers and prosecutorial discretion.20

Black’s Law Dictionary 136 (9th ed. 2009) (defining “assignment” as “the transfer of rights or property” ). back
529 U.S. 765, 768, 778 (2000). back
31 U.S.C. § 3729(a). back
Id. § 3730(d)(1)–(2). back
Vt. Agency of Natural Res., 529 U.S. at 772 ( “For the portion of the recovery retained by the relator . . . some explanation of standing other than agency for the Government must be identified.” ) (citing 31 U.S.C. § 3730). back
Id. at 772–73 ( “An interest unrelated to injury in fact is insufficient to give a plaintiff standing. . . . A qui tam relator has suffered no [invasion of a legally protected right]—indeed, the ‘right’ he seeks to vindicate does not even fully materialize until the litigation is completed and the relator prevails.” ) (citations omitted). The Supreme Court has held that a litigant’s interest in recovering attorneys’ fees or the costs of bringing suit by itself normally does not confer standing to sue. E.g. Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env’t, 523 U.S. 83, 107 (1998) ( “The litigation must give the plaintiff some other benefit besides reimbursement of costs that are a byproduct of the litigation itself.” ); Diamond v. Charles, 476 U.S. 54, 70–71 (1986) ( “[T]he mere fact that continued adjudication would provide a remedy for an injury that is only a byproduct of the suit itself does not mean that the injury is cognizable under Art. III.” ). back
Vt. Agency of Natural Res., 529 U.S. at 773. back
Id. at 774, 778 back
Id. back
Id. Although the Court held that the relator had standing to sue under the qui tam provision, it ultimately determined that the plaintiff could not maintain the action against a state agency for allegedly submitting false grant claims to the EPA because states were not “persons” subject to liability under the False Claims Act. Id. at 787. back
Sprint Commc’ns Co. v. APCC Servs., Inc., 554 U.S. 269, 271 (2008). back
Id. at 271–72. back
Id. at 272. back
Id. at 273–75. The Court noted that “federal courts routinely entertain suits which will result in relief for parties that are not themselves directly bringing suit. Trustees bring suits to benefit their trusts; guardians ad litem bring suits to benefit their wards; receivers bring suit to benefit their receiverships; assignees in bankruptcy bring suit to benefit bankrupt estates; executors bring suit to benefit testator estates; and so forth.” Id. at 287–88. back
Id. at 286–87 ( “[I]f the [collection agencies] prevail in this litigation, the long-distance carriers would write a check to [them] for the amount of dial-around compensation owed. What does it matter what the [agencies] do with the money afterward?” ). back
See also ArtIII.S2.C1.6.4.3 Particularized Injury. back
See Vt. Agency of Natural Res., 529 U.S. at 773. back
31 U.S.C. §§ 37293733. back
See id. at 774, 778; Sprint Commc’ns Co., 554 U.S. at 273–75. back
See Heather Elliott, Congress’s Inability to Solve Standing Problems, 91 B.U. L. Rev. 159, 195–204 (2011) (questioning whether Congress’s assignment of claims to citizen suitors in order to confer standing would be constitutional or practical). back