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Warth v. Seldin

Citation. 422 U.S. 490, 95 S. Ct. 2197, 45 L.Ed.2d 343 (1975).
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Citation. 422 U.S. 490, 95 S. Ct. 2197, 45 L.Ed.2d 343 (1975).

Brief Fact Summary.

Several individuals and associations in the Rochester area challenged the Town of Penfield’s zoning practices for discriminating against lower-income persons.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

To properly assert standing, a plaintiff must prove that he himself was the one injured.  Standing exists when “the plaintiff has alleged such a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy as to warrant his invocation of federal-court jurisdiction and to justify exercise of the court’s remedial powers on his behalf.”


Residents in the Rochester, New York area sued the Town of Penfield alleging discriminatory zoning practices which excluded lower income persons from living in Penfield.


Whether the petitioners had standing to sue the Town for discriminatory zoning practices.


JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

No, the Court affirmed the lower courts’ holding.  The Court divided the petitioners into three subclasses, rejecting each for lack of standing.  The party seeking redress is responsible for proving to the court that he or she is the one deserving of it.  Because no party could do so here, the case was dismissed for lack of standing.



Justice Douglas thought that standing should not serve as a barrier to access the courts, but should only dismiss a case after the merits have been developed at trial.


Justice Brennan believed that the majority posed an impossible burden on the petitioners.  To satisfy the majority’s standing requirements, the petitioners would have had to, without benefit of discovery and trial, know future building plans and years of housing-market details and have years worth of data for each housing plan suggested and refused, essentially requiring them to prove their case before they got to court.  Further, the Court’s holding was not that the petitioners had not alleged injury, “but that they are not to be allowed to prove [injury]” because of their claim’s dependence on third-party builders.  At least three groups of plaintiffs sufficiently alleged injury supported by documentary evidence and should have survived the motion to dismiss.


First, the Court rejected individual petitioners who were members of minority racial or ethnic groups and who were of low or moderate income.  The Court held that they lacked standing because they could not assert that they themselves suffered injury, only that third parties, like building developers, were precluded from building affordable housing.  The fact that they tied their injury to a third party did not condemn their claim, but it made it “substantially more difficult” to show that they had standing.  The fact that developers may have been screened out of Penfield appeared more to be from the desirable housing market than any discriminatory action from the Town.  Had the developers been allowed to build in Penfield, there was no indication that the houses would have been at a price that the petitioners could have afforded.

Second, the Court rejected petitioners who asserted standing on the basis of their status as taxpayers in Rochester.  The crux of their claim was that Penfield’s refusal to construct low-cost housing forced Rochester to build more modestly priced housing, forcing Rochester to allow tax abatements, leading certain taxpayers to assume an increased tax burden.  The Court rejected their claim, reasoning that it fell under “the prudential standing rule that normally bars litigants from asserting the right or legal interests of others . . . to obtain relief from injury to themselves.”  These claims can succeed when Congress specifically allows citizens to sue under statute, but no such statute or provision existed here.  Rochester’s taxpayers are not subject to Penfield’s zoning practices, nor do they have a relationship that was adversely affected with the party whose rights are being violated.  Thus, the taxpayers could not assert third-party standing.

Third, the Court rejected several associations who asserted injury from the zoning practices.  While an association may assert standing on its own behalf from injury to itself (or on behalf of their individual members for their injuries), none of the associations asserted injury to itself.  Home Builders asserted standing as a residential housing developer in the Penfield area, but their complaint never referred to a specific project that was precluded by a zoning ordinance, and the complaint did not show that they had applied for a building permit.  Thus, Home Builders did not show an injury “of sufficient immediacy and ripeness” to its members to satisfy standing.

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