In its long-awaited decision on Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, the United States Supreme Court ruled on May 16, 2016 that plaintiffs must prove they suffered from an actual injury – not just the potential for such injury – in order to sue in federal court.
In 2010, Thomas Robins brought a class action lawsuit under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) against Spokeo, Inc., which is an internet “people search engine.” Robins claimed that the inaccurate personal information reported by Spokeo violated his rights under the FCRA because the information might impede his ability to find employment. The case was at first dismissed by the district court, but that decision was later reversed by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a move which ultimately landed the case in the highest court in the land.
By a 6-2 vote, authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito and with only Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissenting, the Court agreed that the Ninth Circuit’s injury-in-fact analysis under Article III was incomplete. The two required elements of injury-in-fact, the Court says, are concreteness and particularization. Concreteness is what requires a plaintiff to claim a “real,” as opposed to “abstract,” injury. However, the Ninth Circuit addressed only particularization, which means that the injury affected the plaintiff in a “personal and individual” way.
The entire case was then remanded back to the Ninth Circuit Court for further review in light of the Court’s opinion.
The FCRA is at the center of the Spokeo case, as it requires that consumer reporting agencies, or CRAs, follow certain reasonable procedures to ensure the accuracy of the consumer reports they issue. It also requires that CRAs issue specific notices to providers and users of information and that they provide consumers with a toll-free phone number to request a copy of their reports.
In this case, Spokeo itself was the purported CRA, as it aggregates widely available public information about individuals using phone books, social networks, marketing surveys, real estate listings, business websites, and other sources. Robins claimed that Spokeo reported that he had a higher level of education and more professional experience than he actually has, and that he was married with children (he was not). He did not have a specific claim as to how this information harmed him, saying instead only that it could have harmed him.
The implications of this decision by the Supreme Court for those governed by the rules in the FCRA are positive: those wishing to file class action suits under the FCRA and other statutes like it must allege injuries that are both particular and concrete; mere procedural violations that bring no actual harm can no longer satisfy the standing requirement under Article III.
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