Divided Supreme Court Vacates Ninth Circuit Decision in Spokeo, Remands for Further Proceedings

Class Actions  •  FCRA  •  Litigation

Supreme Ct ExteriorToday, the Supreme Court released its opinion in Spokeo v. Robins, vacating the Ninth Circuit’s decision and remanding the case for further proceedings.  Our earlier posts on the case (here, here, and here) provide more detailed background on the facts of the case, but by way of short introduction, Spokeo involves a claim that the defendant (Spokeo, a personal information aggregator) violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act by reporting several inaccurate details about plaintiff Robins.  Robins sued Spokeo on behalf of a putative class when he discovered that Spokeo’s reports contained incorrect information regarding his age, marital status, and employment status, among others.  He further alleged that he had suffered harm through a diminution in employment prospects, loss of money, and stress.  Spokeo countered that Robins suffered no actual injury and thus lacked standing to bring suit.

The United States District Court for the Central District of California originally dismissed the case, finding that the Robins lacked standing given that he had suffered no injury in fact.  The Ninth Circuit reversed, concluding that Robins’ allegations that Spokeo violated “his statutory rights, not just the statutory rights of other people” and Robins’ “personal interests in the handling of his credit information” were sufficient to meet the standing requirement.  Court watchers had expected the Supreme Court to resolve the question of whether a bare statutory violation was sufficient to establish Article III standing or whether something more was required.

In vacating and remanding the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the Supreme Court began by noting that the Ninth Circuit’s analysis was incomplete.  Specifically, the Court explained that while the Ninth Circuit had considered whether Robins had alleged a particularized injury, it had not fully considered whether the injury was concrete.  To show standing, a plaintiff must show that he or she “(1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed b a favorable judicial decision.”  The “injury in fact” element requires a showing of “concrete and particularized” injury that is “actual or immediate, not conjectural or hypothetical.”  The Court’s decision focused on the distinction between a showing that the injury allegedly suffered was particularized, and a showing that the injury was concrete.  While the Court did not take issue with the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that Robins had alleged a particular injury—one which related to FCRA-rights specific to him—it concluded more analysis was required to determine whether the particularized injury was concrete, i.e., “‘real,’ and not ‘abstract.’”

The Court’s Spokeo decision clearly anticipated that something more than a “procedural violation” of the statute is required in Thomas Robins’ case.  Indeed, the Court noted “Robins cannot satisfy the demands of Article III by alleging a bare procedural violation” of the statute, and that “not all inaccuracies cause harm or present any material risk of harm.”  The Court illustrated its point by explaining “[i]t is difficult to imagine how the dissemination of an incorrect zip code, without more, could work any concrete harm.”  But, the Court’s observation that “[t]he violation of a procedural right granted by statute can be sufficient in some circumstances to constitute injury-in-fact,” leaves room for future plaintiffs in other cases to argue they need not allege any additional harm beyond violation of a right that Congress identified.

The 6-2 opinion was issued with both concurring and dissenting opinions.  In concurrence, Justice Thomas explained that a remand was required to determine whether Spokeo failed “to protect his [Robins’] information.”  In dissent, Justice Ginsberg (joined by Justice Sotomayor) asserted that no remand was required because she believed “Robins’ allegations carr[ied] him across the threshold.”

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