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The Supreme Court of the United States Decision in Spokeo, Inc. v Robins and Application to Statutory Claims

courtroom-justicescalesThe Supreme Court of the United States recently released a 6-2 opinion regarding the sufficiency of a claim based upon alleged statutory violations. See 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”). The FCRA, in 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 [of the Act] with respect to any” individual, 1681n(a). Robins alleged that the profile 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. See Spokeo, pg. 4. The District Court ultimately 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.

“[T]he 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,” Id., at 413. 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.” Ibid (emphasis original). The court thus concluded that Robins’ “alleged violations of [his] statutory rights [were] sufficient to satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III.” Id., at 413-414.

Spokeo, Pg 5.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and determined that Ninth Circuit failed to address to 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 “irreducible 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 indentifying 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. An example that comes readily to mind is an incorrect zip code. It is difficult to imagine how the dissemination of an incorrect zip code, without more, could work any concrete harm,” pgs 10-11 of opinion.

The Court remanded the issue to the Ninth Circuit to determine if Robins sufficiently alleged a particularized and concrete injury in fact. It is of note that, while Justices Ginsburg and Sotamayer both dissented, agreed that an injury-in-fact must be both particularized and concrete., The dissent found that the Robins’ allegation satisfied both factors and the Supreme Court should have issued an opinion on the merits rather than remand.

This is not the first opinion addressing the standing under a particularized and concrete injury in fact analysis. As the opinion mentions, the Supreme Court has addressed the issue in previous actions. This in and of itself is interesting. It also begs the question of why the Court agreed to grant cert, and what the outcome would have been had there been a broader majority that included the late Justice Scalia. These are questions to which we do not have answers. It is clear, however, that the Court has a particular interest in emphasizing 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.


About Author: Matthew D. Levine

Matthew D. Levine is a litigation attorney with Trott Law, a Farmington Hills, Michigan-based real estate finance law firm. He can be reached at [email protected].

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