By Devan Cole, CNN
(CNN) — The Supreme Court said Tuesday that it won’t resolve a case it heard earlier this term concerning whether a self-appointed “tester” of the Americans with Disabilities Act can sue hotels over alleged violations of the civil rights law if she doesn’t intend to stay at them.
The court decided the case was moot after the plaintiff at the center of the dispute, Deborah Laufer, dropped her lawsuit. She had sued the hotel for not being in compliance with ADA rules requiring hotels to include information on their websites about their accessibility. The Maine hotel operated by Acheson Hotels posted the information while the suit made its way through lower courts, and the company later sold the hotel.
Legal experts and disability rights advocates had said that if the justices got to the legal questions at the center of the case, they could issue a ruling that has a significant impact on the practical effectiveness of the landmark statute, which aims to shield individuals with disabilities from discrimination in public accommodations and a host of other settings.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the majority, said that under this set of circumstances the case is now moot, and wiped away the appeals court decision that had allowed the lawsuit to move forward.
“We are sensitive to Acheson’s concern about litigants manipulating the jurisdiction of this Court. We are not convinced, however, that Laufer abandoned her case in an effort to evade our review,” Barrett wrote. “She voluntarily dismissed her pending ADA cases after a lower court sanctioned her lawyer. She represented to this Court that she will not file any others. Laufer’s case against Acheson is moot, and we dismiss it on that ground.”
“We emphasize, however, that we might exercise our discretion differently in a future case,” Barrett added.
There were no noted dissents.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Ketanji Brown Jackson concurred in the judgment. Thomas said he would have held that the plaintiff couldn’t bring the suit in the first place. Jackson reiterated her concerns about when the court should and should not vacate lower-court rulings when a case becomes moot on appeal.
Attorneys for Acheson argued to the justices that because Laufer did not intend to stay at the hotel, Coast Village Inn and Cottages, she didn’t have the legal right – known as standing – to bring her suit under the ADA. Though the justices weighed that question during oral arguments, they spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out if they should resolve the issue at all.
“The case has been dismissed by the plaintiff. The defendant is totally different. The defendant’s website, everybody agrees, is now in compliance with the ADA,” liberal Justice Elena Kagan said during oral arguments. “So this is, like, dead, dead, dead in all the ways that something can be dead.”
Justice Samuel Alito said during arguments: “The case before us is dead as a doornail and is not going to arise again between these parties.”
Laufer dropped all her pending lawsuits against hotels this summer after one of her attorneys in some of the cases she brought was professionally disciplined, saying she was worried it would “distract” from her advocacy work. Acheson separately claimed the case had been rendered moot after the hotel updated its website to note that it doesn’t provide ADA-compliant lodging.
Still, the company’s attorney, Adam Unikowsky, urged the justices during oral arguments to hand down a ruling on the issue so that lower courts, which have been split on when “testers” have legal standing, have clarity from the Supreme Court for future cases.
Concerns were also raised by Chief Justice John Roberts about litigants “manipulating” the high court’s jurisdiction by seeking to moot a case after it has been added to the docket.
“We can’t sort of keep (taking cases) and having them constantly being mooted with never a determination of whether there’s standing in those variety of cases,” he said at one point.
Laufer’s attorney attempted to assuage those concerns, saying during oral arguments that her client hasn’t brought suits like the one she filed against Acheson in years and that she doesn’t plan to continue that type of advocacy work.
“We acknowledged in our suggestion of mootness that we were not manipulating the court’s jurisdiction, that it’s free to reach the standing question if it thinks this case is still a good vehicle for doing so,” the attorney, Kelsi Corkran, told the justices.
“This is a highly unusual case in that not only does Ms. Laufer not have an interest in it anymore, neither does Acheson because it doesn’t own the hotel,” Corkran added.
This story has been updated with additional details.
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