Supreme court takes middle road in Spokeo case

Posted on: May 23rd, 2016 by Steve Larson
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Consumer ProtectionOn May 16, 2016, the U.S. Supreme remanded back to the Ninth Circuit for further analysis the Robins v. Spokeo case.   The case involved a class action lawsuit filed by plaintiff Thomas Robins, who alleged that almost everything in the people-search website’s profile of him was inaccurate, including that he was a wealthy married man with children.  He sued under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires consumer-reporting agencies to take reasonable steps to assure the accuracy of the information they publish. Companies that willfully violate the act can be liable for actual damages or $1,000 per violation. A consumer also can seek punitive damages.

The court’s decision was a middle-ground ruling that provided an interim victory for Spokeo, though it doesn’t fully resolve the case. Spokeo and its supporters in the business community argued Mr. Robins shouldn’t be allowed to proceed in court because he suffered no actual, tangible injuries from the inaccuracies.  The Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision by Justice Samuel Alito, said the Ninth Circuit used the wrong legal analysis when it allowed the lawsuit to go forward.  The court ordered the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to consider the case again to determine if Mr. Robins had made sufficient allegations of concrete harm for his case to proceed.

Spokeo’s appeal had been seen as a possible vehicle to place new limits on class-action lawsuits, which involve claims brought on behalf of large groups of plaintiffs.  That did not happen. In fact, the court held that the violation of a procedural right granted by statute can be sufficient in some circumstances to constitute injury in fact.  However, the Supreme Court majority held that the Ninth Circuit’s analysis was not complete.  The majority said the injury has to be particularized and concrete.  The Supreme Court said the Ninth Circuit had determined that the injury was particularized, that is, it affected the plaintiff in a personal and individual way.  But the majority wanted the Ninth Circuit to analyze whether the injury was concrete, that is, whether it was defacto, or actually existed.  The Supreme Court majority took no position on whether the Ninth Circuit’s ultimate conclusion, that Robins adequately alleged an injury in fact – was correct.  However, the dissent said the allegations were sufficient.

My guess is that the Ninth Circuit will make the same ultimate conclusion.