Does a consumer, as an individual, have standing to sue a consumer reporting agency for a “knowing violation” of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), even if the individual may not have suffered any “actual damages”?

The question will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 742 F.3d 409 (9th Cir. 2014), cert. granted, 2015 U.S. LEXIS 2947 (U.S. Apr. 27, 2015) (No. 13-1339). The Court’s decision will have far-reaching implications for suits under the FCRA and other statutes that regulate privacy and consumer credit information.

FCRA

Enacted in 1970, the Fair Credit Reporting Act obligates consumer reporting agencies to maintain procedures to assure the “maximum possible accuracy” of any consumer report it creates. Under the statute, consumer reporting agencies are persons who regularly engage “in the practice of assembling or evaluating consumer credit information or other information on consumers for the purpose of furnishing consumer reports to third parties.” Information about a consumer is considered to be a consumer report when a consumer reporting agency has communicated that information to another party and “is used or expected to be used or collected” for certain purposes, such as extending credit, underwriting insurance, or considering an applicant for employment. The information in a consumer report must relate to a “consumer’s credit worthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, or mode of living.”

Under the FCRA, consumers may bring a private cause of action for alleged violations of their FCRA rights resulting from a consumer reporting agency’s negligent or willful actions. For a negligent violation, the consumer may recover the actual damages he or she may have sustained. For a “willful” or “knowing” violation, a consumer may recover either actual damages or statutory monetary damages of $100 to $1,000. 

Background

Spokeo is a website that aggregates personal data from public records that it sells for many purposes, including employment screening. The information provided on the site may include an individual’s contact information, age, address, income, credit status, ethnicity, religion, photographs, and social media use. 

Spokeo, Inc., has the dubious distinction of receiving the first fine ($800,000) from the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) for FCRA violations involving the sale of Internet and social media data in the employment screening context. The FTC alleged that the company was a consumer reporting agency and that it failed to comply with the FCRA’s requirements when it marketed consumer information to companies in the human resources, background screening, and recruiting industries.

Conflict in Circuit Courts

In Robins v. Spokeo, Inc., Thomas Robins had alleged several FCRA violations, including the reckless production of false information to potential employers. Robins did not allege he had suffered or was about to suffer any actual or imminent harm resulting from the information that was produced, raising only the possibility of a future injury.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, held that allegations of willful FCRA violations are sufficient to confer Article III standing to sue upon a plaintiff who suffers no concrete harm, and who therefore could not otherwise invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court, by authorizing a private right of action based on a bare violation of the statute. In other words, the consumer need not allege any resulting damage caused by a violation; the “knowing violation” of a consumer’s FCRA rights alone, the Ninth Circuit held, injures the consumer. The Ninth Circuit’s holding is consistent with other circuits that have addressed the issue. See e.g., Beaudry v. TeleCheck Servs., Inc., 579 F.3d 702, 705-07 (6th Cir. 2009). It refused to follow the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in finding that one “reasonable reading of the [FCRA] could still require proof of actual damages but simply substitute statutory rather than actual damages for the purpose of calculating the damage award.” Dowell v. Wells Fargo Bank, NA, 517 F.3d 1024, 1026 (8th Cir. 2008).

The constitutional question before the U.S. Supreme Court is the scope of Congress’ authority to confer Article III standing, particularly, whether a violation of consumers’ statutory rights under the FCRA are the type of injury for which Congress may create a private cause of action to redress. In Beaudry, the Sixth Circuit identified two limitations on Congress’ ability to confer standing: 

  1. the plaintiff must be “among the injured,” and 
  2. the statutory right must protect against harm to an individual rather than a collective.

The defendant companies in Beaudry provided check-verification services. They had failed to account for a change in the numbering system for Tennessee driver’s licenses. This led to reports incorrectly identifying consumers as first-time check-writers.

The Sixth Circuit did not require the plaintiffs in Beaudry to allege the consequential damages resulting from the incorrect information. Instead, it held that the FCRA “does not require a consumer to wait for consequential harm” (such as the denial of credit) before bringing suit under FCRA for failure to implement reasonable procedures in the preparation of consumer reports. The Ninth Circuit endorsed this position, holding that the other standing requirements of causation and redressability are satisfied “[w]hen the injury in fact is the violation of a statutory right that [is] inferred from the existence of a private cause of action.” 

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Until the Supreme Court renders a decision, businesses should consider addressing their statutory obligations proactively in order to avoid potential liability. An individual’s standing to sue companies for statutory violations involving no “actual damages” is critical for assessing potential liability, especially in the context of class actions lawsuits. The Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins may allow potential class members, who otherwise would be excluded from the class for failing to assert actual damages, to be included as plaintiffs.