On February 4, 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a plaintiff could bring a lawsuit under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), even when the plaintiff did not allege that he or she had suffered any actual damages. 

Robbins v. Spokeo Case Background

In Thomas Robbins v. Spokeo, Inc., No. 11-56843 (9th Cir. filed Feb. 4, 2014), the panel held that the individual plaintiff, Thomas Robbins, had standing to sue a website’s operator under the FCRA for publishing inaccurate personal information about Robbins. Spokeo, Inc.’s website provided its users with personal information about individuals. The website allegedly described Robbins as holding a graduate degree, which he did not have, and as wealthy, which he was not. The unemployed Robbins alleged in his First Amended Complaint that the misinformation caused “actual harm to [his] employment prospects,” and further elaborated that remaining unemployed cost him money as well as “anxiety, stress, concern, and/or worry about his diminished employment prospects.” Robbins sued Spokeo Inc. for willful violations of the FCRA for posting inaccurate information.

The central issue to the case was whether the harm Robbins alleged was enough of an injury to constitute standing to bring the case. The Court outlined three components of standing: 1) injury in fact, 2) causation, 3) redressability.

Injury in Fact Prong

In analyzing whether Robbins met the first prong for injury in fact, the Court focused on standing for cases involving statutory rights. The Court observed that when Congress created a cause of action to enforce a statutory provision, as was done with the “willful violations” cause of action of the FCRA (15 U.S.C. § 1681n(a)), the creation of a statutory right was implied. The Court went one step further and concluded that the violation of a statutory right was enough to create standing.

While Spokeo Inc. argued that Robbins had not shown actual harm, the Court held that the statutory language did not require a showing of actual harm for a plaintiff to show a willful violation under the FCRA. 15 U.S.C. § 1681n(a) (“Any person who willfully fails to comply with any requirement imposed under this subchapter with respect to any consumer is liable to that consumer in an amount equal to . . . damages of not less than $100 and not more than $1,000 . . . .”).

Since the language of the FCRA statute does not require proof of actual damages, a plaintiff can suffer a violation of the statutory right without suffering actual damages.

The Court acknowledged that there were limits to the power of Congress to confer standing by statutory right. The Court identified two: First, a plaintiff “must be ‘among the injured,’ in the sense that she alleges the defendants violated her statutory rights,” and second, the statutory right at issue must protect against “individual, rather than collective, harm.” The Court held that Robbins met both because 1) he alleged that Spokeo violated his statutory rights and 2) Robbins’s personal interests in the handling of his credit information are individualized rather than collective. In addressing the second prong, the Court compared Robbins’s scenario to “an individual’s personal interest in living in a racially integrated community” or “a company’s interest in marketing its product free from competition” to reach the conclusion that the FCRA protected against individual harm.

Causation and Redressability Prongs Not Required

The Court did not feel the need to address the remaining prongs of causation and redressability. The Court held that where statutory rights are asserted, cases have described the standing inquiry as “boiling down to ‘essentially’ the injury-in-fact prong.” When the injury in fact is the violation of a statutory right that we inferred from the existence of a private cause of action, causation and redressability will usually be satisfied.