Supreme Court Speaks on Standing Where No Actual Damages Exist

In Spokeo v. Robins, No. 13-1339, the Supreme Court of the United States delivered a somewhat underwhelming decision in a case challenging a consumer’s right to sue under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) without any actual damages. The consumer, Thomas Robins, asserted that Spokeo published incorrect and false information about him on its online search site, which Robins alleged could impact his ability to obtain a job. However, he did not have any concrete economic injury. Is that enough to sue for a literal statutory violation of the FCRA?

The federal district court (trial court) said no and dismissed Robins’s case for lack of standing to bring a claim. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reinstated the case, but the Supreme Court granted Spokeo’s request for certiorari, giving it a chance to address the issue.

In the Supreme Court’s decision, the Court directed the Ninth Circuit to review the standing question again, and specifically, whether Robins had alleged a particularized injury-in-fact. The Supreme Court emphasized that “concrete” injury is not synonymous with “tangible.” (Op. at 8-9.) Although tangible injuries are “easier to recognize,” the Court acknowledged it had previously found that intangible injuries can be concrete.

How does this apply to consumer credit reporting cases? The Supreme Court said that in the context of the FCRA, Congress “plainly sought to curb the dissemination of false information by adopting procedures designed to decrease that risk.” (Op. at 10.) However, a bare procedural violation is not enough. The Court gave the example that disseminating an incorrect zip code, without more, could work any concrete harm. (Id. at 11.) The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit to provide a complete standing analysis.

Although this case is helpful to creditors and defendants, it is important that the Supreme Court explained it was taking “no position as to whether the Ninth Circuit’s ultimate conclusion – that Robins adequately alleged an injury in fact – was correct.” (Id.) Standing issues are important in consumer cases, as well as data security and privacy matters where a concrete harm does not often immediately exist. The decision is not as sweeping as many might have hoped, but it does provide important direction on concrete and tangible issues and how such elements of claims must be alleged.

Please contact Spilman with any further questions about how this decision may impact your organization.

By R. Scott Adams

R. Scott Adams


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