Supreme Court Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins

The Supreme Court of the United States recently released a 6-2 opinion regarding the sufficiency of a claim based upon alleged statutory violations (Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339, decided May 16, 2016).  The complainant, Robins, accused Spokeo, Inc., allegedly a consumer reporting agency, of violating specific portions of the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 (“FCRA”).  FCRA, in relevant part, requires consumer reporting agencies to “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of” consumer reports, 15 USC 1681e(b) and imposes liability on “[a]ny person who willfully fails to comply with any requirement [the Act] with respect to any” individual, 1681n(a). Robins alleged that the description provided in the Spokeo consumer report falsely stated that he was married, had children, is in his 50’s, has a job, is relatively affluent and holds a graduate degree, all of which, according to Robins, is inaccurate.  The District Court found that Robins did not plead an injury-in-fact as required by Article III of the United States Constitution.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and stated in relevant part that the violation of a statutory right is usually a sufficient injury in fact to confer standing, [Ninth Circuit Opinion] 742 F. 3d, at 412. The court recognized that the Constitution limits the power of Congress to confer standing.   But the court held that those limits were honored in this case because Robins alleged that “Spokeo violated his statutory rights, not just the statutory rights of other people,” and because his “personal interests in the handling of his credit information are individualized rather than collective.”  The court thus concluded that Robins’ alleged violations of [his] statutory rights [were] sufficient to satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and determined that Ninth Circuit failed to address the totality of standing requirements for a federal action. Citing Lujan v Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 559-560 (1992), the Supreme Court noted in order to satisfy the “constitutional minimum” for standing, a Plaintiff must: (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 by a favorable judicial decision. The Ninth Circuit, according to the Supreme Court, failed to properly review for the first factor, suffering an injury in fact.

Per the Supreme Court, for an injury to be an injury-in-fact, it must be “particularized,” i.e., it “must affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way,” Pg. 7 of Opinion, referring to Lujan. The second necessity is that the injury-in-fact must be concrete. For an injury-in-fact to be concrete, it must actually exist, though, it need not be tangible. The injury must be something actually incurred by the complaining party, or a viable risk of real harm. An example provided by the Spokeo Court was Federal Election Comm’n v Akins, 524 US 11, 20-25 (1998) in which the Supreme Court confirmed that a group of voters’ “inability to obtain information” that Congress had decided to make public is a sufficient injury in fact to satisfy Article III. See Pg 10 of Opinion.

While the Court recognized the role of Congress in identifying injuries, it found that bare violations of procedural requirements, without showing harm, or risk of harm, are not enough to satisfy standing requirements. The Court provided “[f]or example, even if a consumer reporting agency fails to provide the required notice to a user of the agency’s consumer information, that information regardless may be entirely accurate. In addition, not all inaccuracies cause harm or present any material risk of harm.  The Court remanded the issue to the Ninth Circuit to determine if Robins sufficiently alleged a particularized and concrete injury in fact.

The Court emphasized that standing to file in the federal courts is found in Article III of the U.S. Constitution, despite any possible conflict with Congressional intent.  This is a case involving  an important industry federal law related to consumer reporting agencies and standards of conduct.   We will look for the Ninth Circuit’s decision on the issue of actual injury on remand.

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