The Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited decision in Spokeo v. Robins. By a 6-2 vote, the Court reversed the Ninth Circuit decision that a class plaintiff who suffered no actual damages had standing to sue. But it did not address the merits of whether a plaintiff who has suffered no actual damages can nonetheless bring a class action on behalf of other putative class members who equally were not injured. Instead, the Court essentially punted and, in a narrow opinion, held that the Ninth Circuit failed to address the “concreteness” requirement of Article III standing. It therefore remanded the case for further consideration.

The defendant, Spokeo, operated a “people search engine.” Some of the information in its search results about the plaintiff was incorrect, including his age, income, marital status, and likeness. The plaintiff filed a class action against Spokeo alleging violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). FCRA provides that a plaintiff may recover either actual damages or statutory damages of $100 to $1,000 per violation. The district court dismissed the claims for lack of standing because the plaintiff had suffered no actual damages, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, stating that a violation of a statutory right is sufficient injury-in-fact to confer standing. In other words, the plaintiff had alleged a violation of his own statutory rights, not just the statutory rights of absent class members.

Justice Alito, writing for the majority, reversed that decision, holding that the Ninth Circuit’s standing analysis was “incomplete” because it focused only on the particularized nature of the injury-in-fact requirement for constitutional standing, and failed to address the concreteness requirement. For an injury to be particularized, it must affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way. The complaint satisfied this requirement.

The injury also must be concrete, which is to say, it “must actually exist.” Congress can identify and elevate intangible harms to the level of concrete injury in certain circumstances. When it enacted FCRA, Congress sought to curb the dissemination of false information by adopting procedures designed to decrease that risk. However, the Court determined the plaintiff could not satisfy the concreteness requirement by alleging a “bare procedural violation.” Not all inaccuracies in information cause harm.

The Court refused to address these issues further, however, because the Ninth Circuit failed to address the concreteness requirement of Article III standing. The Court instead remanded for further consideration based on the broad principles it outlined.

The Court did emphasize in a footnote that the fact that the suit was filed as a class action “adds nothing to the question” of standing, which must be evaluated from the perspective of the named plaintiff.

In concurrence, Justice Thomas sought to go beyond the narrow holding of the majority to ground the concrete-harm requirement in separation of powers principles. He concluded that Congress could not authorize standing to redress public harms, but could do so to vindicate the violation of a privately held right. He suggested that the Ninth Circuit on remand consider the nature of the claim and whether it involved vindication of a private right or a public right.

Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor dissented.

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