A class consisting of 8,185 individuals sued TransUnion, a credit reporting agency, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The plaintiffs claimed, and a jury ultimately concluded, that TransUnion failed to use reasonable procedures to ensure the accuracy of their credit files. For 1,853 of the class members, TransUnion provided misleading credit reports to third-party businesses, and the Court concluded that those 1,853 class members have demonstrated concrete reputational harm on the reasonable-procedures claim. The internal credit files of the other 6,332 class members were not provided to third-party businesses during the relevant time period, and the Court concluded that those 6,332 class members did not demonstrate concrete harm for Article III standing purposes.
With respect to two other claims, all 8,185 class members complained about formatting defects in certain mailings sent to them by TransUnion. But the class members other than the Named Plaintiff, Mr. Ramirez, the Court found, had not demonstrated that the alleged formatting errors caused them any concrete harm. Therefore, except for Ramirez himself, the absent class members lack Article III standing with respect to the pursuit of those claims.
“For standing purposes, an important difference exists between (i) a plaintiff ’s statutory cause of action to sue a defendant over the defendant’s violation of federal law, and (ii) a plaintiff ’s suffering concrete harm because of the defendant’s violation of federal law. Congress may enact legal prohibitions and obligations. And Congress may create causes of action for plaintiffs to sue defendants who violate those legal prohibitions or obligations. But under Article III, an injury in law is not an injury in fact. Only those plaintiffs who have been concretely harmed by a defendant’s statutory violation may sue that private defendant over that violation in federal court. As then-Judge Barrett succinctly summarized, ‘Article III grants federal courts the power to redress harms that defendants cause plaintiffs, not a freewheeling power to hold defendants accountable for legal infractions.’ To appreciate how the Article III ‘concrete harm’ principle operates in practice, consider two different hypothetical plaintiffs. Suppose first that a Maine citizen’s land is polluted by a nearby factory. She sues the company, alleging that it violated a federal environmental law and damaged her property. Suppose also that a second plaintiff in Hawaii files a federal lawsuit alleging that the same company in Maine violated that same environmental law by polluting land in Maine. The violation did not personally harm the plaintiff in Hawaii. Even if Congress affords both hypothetical plaintiffs a cause of action (with statutory damages available) to sue over the defendant’s legal violation, Article III standing doctrine sharply distinguishes between those two scenarios. The first lawsuit may of course proceed in federal court because the plaintiff has suffered concrete harm to her property. But the second lawsuit may not proceed because that plaintiff has not suffered any physical, monetary, or cognizable intangible harm traditionally recognized as providing a basis for a lawsuit in American courts. An uninjured plaintiff who sues in those circumstances is, by definition, not seeking to remedy any harm to herself but instead is merely seeking to ensure a defendant’s compliance with regulatory law (and, of course, to obtain some money via the statutory damages). Those are not grounds for Article III standing.”
In an excellent dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas explains that: “Key to the scope of the judicial power is whether an individual asserts his or her own rights. At the time of the founding, whether a court possessed judicial power over an action with no showing of actual damages depended on whether the plaintiff sought to enforce a right held privately by an individual or a duty owed broadly to the community. Where an individual sought to sue someone for a violation of his private rights, such as trespass on his land, the plaintiff needed only to allege the violation. Courts typically did not require any showing of actual damage. But where an individual sued based on the violation of a duty owed broadly to the whole community, such as the overgrazing of public lands, courts required not only injuria [legal injury] but also damnum [damage]…. In light of this history, tradition, and common practice, our test should be clear: So long as a statute fixes a minimum of recovery, there would seem to be no doubt of the right of one who establishes a technical ground of action to recover this minimum sum without any specific showing of loss. While the Court today discusses the supposed failure to show ‘injury in fact’, courts for centuries held that injury in law to a private right was enough to create a case or controversy. Here, each class member established a violation of his or her private rights. The jury found that TransUnion violated three separate duties created by statute. All three of those duties are owed to individuals, not to the community writ large. Take §1681e(b), which requires a consumer reporting agency to ‘follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information concerning the individual about whom the report relates.’ This statute creates a duty: to use reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy. And that duty is particularized to an individual: the subject of the report. Section 1681g does the same. It requires an agency to ‘clearly and accurately disclose’ to a consumer, upon his request, ‘all information in the consumer’s file at the time of the request’ and to include a written ‘summary of rights’ with that ‘written disclosure.’ Those directives likewise create duties: provide all information in the consumer’s file and accompany the disclosure with a summary of rights. And these too are owed to a single person: the consumer who requests the information.”
Interestingly, Justice Thomas also notes that the decision “might actually be a pyrrhic victory for TransUnion. The Court does not prohibit Congress from creating statutory rights for consumers; it simply holds that federal courts lack jurisdiction to hear some of these cases. That combination may leave state courts – which are not bound by the limitations of a case or controversy or other federal rules of justiciability even when they address issues of federal law – as the sole forum for such cases, with defendants unable to seek removal to federal court. By declaring that federal courts lack jurisdiction, the Court has thus ensured that state courts will exercise exclusive jurisdiction over these sorts of class actions.”
TransUnion v. Ramirez, No.20-297, 2021 WL 2599472 (June 25, 2021).