U.S. Supreme Court Vacates and Remands Statutory Damages Case for “Concreteness” of Injury Analysis under Article III

In What's New in Class Action Law?, What's New in the Courts by gravierhouseLeave a Comment

The defendant operates a ‘people search engine’ which conducts a computerized search in a wide variety of databases and provides information about the subject of the search.  Based on inaccurrate information that gathered and then disseminated about the plaintiff, he filed a class complaint under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which provides that any business or person who willfully fails to comply with the Act will be liable for, among other things, either “actual damages” or statutory damages of $100 to $1,000 per violation.

The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit for further consideration of the injury-in-fact requirement under Article III:

“Particularization is necessary to establish injury in fact, but it is not sufficient. An injury in fact must also be ‘concrete.’ Under the Ninth Circuit’s analysis, that independent requirement was elided…. The Ninth Circuit concluded that Robins’ complaint alleges ‘concrete, de facto’ injuries for essentially two reasons. First, the court noted that Robins ‘alleges that Spokeo violated his statutory rights, not just the statutory rights of other people.’ Second, the court wrote that ‘Robins’s personal interests in the handling of his credit information are individualized rather than collective.‘ Both of these observations concern particularization, not concreteness….

“A ‘concrete’ injury must be “de facto”; that is, it must actually exist. When we have used the adjective ‘concrete,’ we have meant to convey the usual meaning of the term—’real,’ and not ‘abstract.’ Concreteness, therefore, is quite different from particularization.”

The Court noted, at that same time, however, that:

“Concrete” is not necessarily synonymous with “tangible.”  “Although tangible injuries are perhaps easier to recognize, we have confirmed in many of our previous cases that intangible injuries can nevertheless be concrete.”

At the same time:

“Congress’ role in identifying and elevating intangible harms does not mean that a plaintiff automatically satisfies the injury-in-fact requirement whenever a statute grants a person a statutory right and purports to authorize that person to sue to vindicate that right. Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation. For that reason, Robins could not, for example, allege a bare procedural violation, divorced from any concrete harm, and satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III….  This does not mean, however, that the risk of real harm cannot satisfy the requirement of concreteness. For example, the law has long permitted recovery by certain tort victims even if their harms may be difficult to prove or measure. Just as the common law permitted suit in such instances, the violation of a procedural right granted by statute can be sufficient in some circumstances to constitute injury in fact. In other words, a plaintiff in such a case need not allege any additional harm beyond the one Congress has identified….

“In the context of this particular case, these general principles tell us two things: On the one hand, Congress plainly sought to curb the dissemination of false information by adopting procedures designed to decrease that risk. On the other hand, Robins cannot satisfy the demands of Article III by alleging a bare procedural violation. A violation of one of the FCRA’s procedural requirements may result in no harm. For 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.

“Because the Ninth Circuit failed to fully appreciate the distinction between concreteness and particularization, its standing analysis was incomplete…. We take no position as to whether the Ninth Circuit’s ultimate conclusion — that Robins adequately alleged an injury in fact — was correct.”

 

Spokeo Inc. v. Robins, No.13-1339 (May 16, 2016).

 

 

Leave a Comment