Ninth Circuit Holds that Consumer Alleging FCRA Claim Against Spokeo Sufficiently Pled a Concrete Harm to Article III Standing

By: Wayne Streibich,Francis X. CrowleyCheryl S. Chang, Diana M. Eng and Nadia D. Adams

In Thomas Robins v. Spokeo, Inc., No. 11-56843 (9th Cir. Aug. 15, 2017) (“Spokeo III”), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously ruled that Thomas Robins (“Robins”), who accused Spokeo, Inc. (“Spokeo”) of violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (the “FCRA”) by allegedly reporting inaccurate information about him on its website, claimed a sufficiently concrete injury to confer standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution.

Background

Spokeo operates a website that compiles consumer data and builds individual consumer profiles containing details about a person’s life, including age, contact information, level of education, marital status, employment status and wealth. Spokeo also markets its services to businesses as a way to learn about prospective employees. Robins sued Spokeo for willful violations of the FCRA, which, among other things, requires credit reporting agencies to take steps to ensure the information they provide to potential employers is accurate. 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. Robins alleged Spokeo published an inaccurate report about him on its website, including that he was wealthy and had a graduate degree when in fact, he was struggling to find work.

Initially, the district court dismissed Robins’s suit based on its determination that Robins lacked standing to sue under Article III of the U.S. Constitution because Robins had not adequately pled that the alleged violation caused him an injury-in-fact. Id. at p.6. Robins appealed and the Ninth Circuit reversed on the basis that Robins established a sufficient injury-in-fact because he alleged that Spokeo violated specifically his statutory rights, which Congress established to protect against individual rather than collective harms. Robins v. Spokeo, Inc. (Spokeo I), 742 F.3d 409, 413-14 (9th Cir. 2014) (emphasis added).

The United States Supreme Court Decision

On Certiorari review, the United States Supreme Court vacated the Spokeo I opinion, because although it agreed with the Ninth Circuit’s analysis and determination that Robins established an alleged injury sufficiently particularized to him, the Ninth Circuit’s standing analysis was incomplete. Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins (Spokeo II), 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016). The Supreme Court held that a bare procedural statutory violation is insufficient to establish a concrete injury-in-fact to confer standing. Id. at 1548-49 (internal citations omitted). In Spokeo II, the Supreme Court reasoned that the reporting of an incorrect zip code, absent another misrepresentation, was unlikely to present any material risk of real harm. Id. at 1550. Thus, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit with instructions for it to consider whether, in addition to a particularized injury, Robins also sufficiently pled a concrete injury. Spokeo III at p.7.

The Ninth Circuit’s Decision on Remand

On remand, the Ninth Circuit held that Robins had alleged injuries that were sufficiently concrete for purposes of Article III, and because the alleged injuries were previously determined to be sufficiently particularized, Robins adequately alleged all of the elements necessary to establish Article III standing. Id. at p.2. In reaching its conclusion, the Ninth Circuit conducted a two-fold analysis.

First, it considered whether Congress established the FCRA to protect consumers’ concrete interest in accurate credit reporting about themselves, and held that it did. The Ninth Circuit further noted the “ubiquity and importance of consumer reports in modern life” and held that the “real-world implications of material inaccuracies in those reports seem patent on their face.” Id. at p.12.

Second, the Ninth Circuit considered whether the FCRA violations that Robins alleged actually harmed or created a “material risk of harm” to his concrete interest in accurate crediting reporting about himself. Id. at p.15. (Internal citations omitted). The Court noted that Robins’s allegations were not minor and could be deemed a real harm because Robins specifically alleged that Spokeo falsely reported—and published—several inaccurate facts including his marital status, age, employment status, educational background and level of wealth. Id. at p.16. Further, even though some of the inaccuracies could be considered flattering and the likelihood to harm could be debated, the inaccuracies alleged did not strike the Court as mere “technical violations” outside the scope of what Congress sought to protect with the FCRA. Id. (Internal citations omitted).

Importantly, however, the Ninth Circuit reiterated that Spokeo II “requires some examination of the nature of the specific alleged reporting inaccuracies to ensure that they raise a real risk of harm to the concrete interests that [the] FCRA protects.” Id. at p.17. The Ninth Circuit cautioned that not every minor inaccuracy would cause real harm. Id. at p.16. Thus, not every FCRA violation premised on some inaccurate disclosure of Robins’s information is sufficient. Id. at pp.16-17.

Conclusion

The Ninth Circuit’s decision is significant for several reasons. First, while declining to express an opinion on the circumstances in which alleged inaccuracies of the kind pled by Robins would or would not cause concrete harm, the Court held that the allegations of Robins’s FCRA class action complaint, which are premised on a “material risk of harm” to his employment opportunities, should proceed past the initial pleading stage. Second, because the Ninth Circuit did not set a bright-line rule for what information necessarily establishes a “concrete injury” and declined to comment on whether Robins would have alleged a concrete injury had Spokeo merely produced, but not published the information, businesses will operate (and litigate) in a gray area until a case law framework for “concrete injury” is established.

Mr. Streibich would like to thank Cheryl Chang, Diana Eng, and Nadia Adams for their assistance in developing this Alert.

Magistrate Judge Declines to Apply Spokeo to FCRA Case Against TransUnion

By: Louise Bowes Marencik

On January 18, 2017, a federal magistrate judge concluded that the ruling in Spokeo does not apply to a putative class action brought against TransUnion.

In Miller v. TransUnion, LLC, the plaintiff alleged that TransUnion violated Section 1681g(a) of the Fair Credit Reporting Act by providing misleading and confusing information to consumers which suggested that their names appear on the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) list of terrorists, money launderers, drug traffickers, and other enemies of the United States.  No. 3:12-CV-1715, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7622 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 18, 2017).  On August 3, 2015, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania stayed the proceedings because the United States Supreme Court had granted certiorari in Spokeo Inc. v. Robins. On May 16, 2016, the Spokeo Court opined on the standard for the injury-in-fact requirement to establish standing under Article III of the United States Constitution, which requires that plaintiffs must show “concrete” and “particularized” injuries, as it relates to claims under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016). The Court held that the appellate court’s standing analysis was incomplete because it failed to consider the distinction between concreteness and particularization, and it did not address whether the particular procedural violations alleged in the case caused sufficient risk to meet the concreteness requirement.

In the instant case, the Court lifted the stay on May 31, 2016, and allowed for briefing on the issue of whether the Spokeo decision had any impact on the plaintiff’s motion for class certification. TransUnion argued that Miller failed to argue a sufficiently “concrete” injury to support standing under Article III.  In his January 18, 2017 Report and Recommendation, Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson noted that, in Spokeo, the Court explained that a bare procedural violation does not satisfy this requirement, using the example of a credit report containing an incorrect zip code as a FCRA violation that would not constitute a concrete harm. However, the Spokeo Court clarified that an intangible harm may be sufficiently concrete to allow standing under Article III. The Judge chose to follow the United States District Court for the Northern District of California’s decision in a similar case involving OFAC disclosures, where the Court found that the confusing disclosure could cause concrete harm in the form of emotional distress about whether the recipient is listed in the OFAC database. Larson v. TransUnion, LLC, 2016 WL 4367253, *2 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 11, 2016).   Accordingly, the Judge recommended that the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania decline to accept TransUnion’s interpretation of Spokeo, and find that Miller’s alleged injuries were sufficiently particularized and concrete to establish standing under Article III.  Assuming the Court follows this recommendation, the decision could suggest that Spokeo’s impact on a plaintiffs’ ability to show injuries caused by FCRA violations will be less substantial than originally thought.

 

 

 

Spokeo: Not the Result Many Hoped (or Feared)

By Joe Patry

The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo v. Robbins re-emphasized the Constitutional requirement that a plaintiff must show a particularized and concrete injury to show standing to sue in federal court. In remanding a Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq. complaint to the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court found that the lower court failed to sufficiently analyze both requirements. This decision was widely anticipated to potentially cause a sea change in complaints based on violations of federal consumer statutes. Some had feared that this decision would potentially eliminate lawsuits based on statutory violations where the consumer suffers no actual damages. However, the decision merely requires the lower court to more fully analyze whether the consumer sufficiently alleged a concrete and actual injury.

In Spokeo, a six justice majority of the Supreme Court[1] examined whether a consumer had standing to bring a claim under the FCRA. Spokeo operates a “people search engine,” which allows visitors to the site to input a person’s name, phone number or email address, and then provides information about the subject of the search. See Spokeo at 1.[2] Mr. Thomas Robins learned that some of the information which Spokeo had on file for him was incorrect. Specifically, Spokeo states that he is married, has children, is in his 50s, has a job, is relatively affluent, and holds a graduate degree. Id. at 4. According to Mr. Robins, all of that information is incorrect. Id.

Mr. Robins filed sued in the United States District Court for the Central District of California and alleged that Spokeo had violated a provision of the FCRA which requires companies that provide consumer information to follow reasonable procedures to ensure that the information is accurate. Id. at 3. This particular provision of the FCRA allows actual damages or statutory damages of $1,000 per violation. Id. The trial court found that Mr. Robins did not have standing to bring his claim because he had not pled an injury in fact, which is required, as federal courts may decide only actual cases or controversies under Article III of the United States Constitution. Id. at 6. The Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal, and found that the statutory violation was in and of itself sufficient to confer standing. Id. at 5. Spokeo appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court began by briefly discussing the concept of standing, noting that the doctrine of standing developed to ensure that federal courts do not exceed their authority. Id. at 6. Further, the Supreme Court recited the three elements for plaintiff to have standing in federal court: (1) an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be addressed by a favorable judicial decision. Id. To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must allege facts to support each element. Id.

Focusing on the injury in fact requirement, the Supreme Court highlighted that plaintiff must have suffered “an invasion of a legally protected interest,” which is “concrete and particularized, and “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” Id. at 7 (internal citations omitted). To be particularized, an injury must affect the plaintiff in a personal way. Id. However, an injury must also be concrete. Id. at 8.

In remanding, the Supreme Court found that the Ninth Circuit had not sufficiently analyzed whether Mr. Robins’ injury caused by the alleged FCRA violation was concrete and actually existed. Id. Although Congress can create statutory violations for intangible harms, Article III still requires a concrete injury in the context of a statutory violation. Id. It is not enough for a plaintiff to allege solely that a statute has been violated. Id. at 10. For example, a provision of the FCRA requires the credit reporting agencies to inform consumers when it has provided information to third parties such as Spokeo. Id. at 10-11. There may be no statutory violation if the credit reporting agency fails to provide the notice to the consumer but the information provided to Spokeo or other third parties was accurate. Id. Or, there may be no harm from even incorrect information – i.e., if an incorrect zip code was provided, the Court found that a consumer could not possibly suffer any harm from this harmless incorrect information. Id.

Ultimately, depending on what happens on remand, this issue may be back before the Supreme Court. Depending on the Ninth Circuit’s decision on remand, the Supreme Court may again have the opportunity to issue an opinion that significantly impacts consumers’ ability to sue for statutory violations for which they have no actual damages. However, Spokeo was not the potential sea change that some had predicted.

[1] Justice Alito wrote the opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Thomas and Breyer. Justice Thomas concurred and Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented.

[2] All references to pages are to as the opinion is paginated in the version available on the Supreme Court’s website.