Once was enough, the U.S. Supreme Court signaled when it denied a writ of certiorari filed by Spokeo, Inc., seeking further clarification on Article III standing.
The dispute began back in 2010, when Thomas Robins sued the online data aggregator, asserting that it posted inaccurate information about him, which he claimed harmed his employment prospects at a time when he was out of work. A federal court judge dismissed the complaint for lack of standing, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.
Robins appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2016 that a plaintiff must show a “concrete” injury in fact to satisfy the standing requirements of Article III.
Applying that standard on remand, the federal appellate panel determined that Robins’ allegation that Spokeo violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) was enough, by itself, to establish a concrete injury.
The court first found that the statutory provisions at issue were established to protect Robins’ concrete interests, as opposed to his purely procedural rights, and that Robins had successfully alleged FCRA violations that actually harmed, or at least created a “material risk of harm” to, this concrete interest.
“Robins specifically alleged that Spokeo falsely reported that he is married with children, that he is in his 50s, that he is employed in a professional or technical field, that he has a graduate degree, and that his wealth level is higher than it is,” the Ninth Circuit wrote. “It does not take much imagination to understand how inaccurate reports on such a broad range of material facts about Robins’ life could be deemed a real harm.”
The panel reversed dismissal of the suit and remanded the matter to the district court. “We are satisfied that Robins has alleged injuries that are sufficiently concrete for the purposes of Article III,” the court said.
Spokeo then requested a return trip to the nation’s highest court, arguing that courts across the country have reached different conclusions when applying the opinion, thereby creating “widespread confusion” about the correct standard.
“In the nearly two years since this Court’s decision, hundreds of lower courts have adopted conflicting interpretations of this Court’s standard in addressing the sufficiency of intangible injury allegations,” Spokeo wrote in its petition. “Some courts require the plaintiff allege that the statutory violation resulted in real-world harm, or an imminent risk of such harm to the plaintiff.”
Other courts—including the Ninth Circuit on remand—have held that as long as the statute protects “concrete interests,” alleging a statutory violation by itself can establish an injury in fact, even if the plaintiff did not suffer actual or imminent real-world harm, Spokeo told the justices. It added that this approach “effectively renders this Court’s opinion a nullity.”
The “deep conflict” among the lower courts on the question of standing to sue should not be allowed to persist, the company argued. “Otherwise, the exercise of federal jurisdiction will continue to vary circuit by circuit and case by case. Given the issue’s enormous practical significance, this Court’s review is plainly warranted.”
The company asked the Court to answer whether the injury in fact requirement “is satisfied by claimed intangible harm to an interest protected by the underlying statute, even if the plaintiff cannot allege that she suffered either real-world harm or an imminent risk of such harm.”
But the justices denied the appeal, leaving in place the Ninth Circuit decision and the split among the lower courts.
To read Spokeo’s petition for a writ of certiorari, click here.
To read the Supreme Court’s Order List denying cert, click here.
Why it matters: The denial of cert sends the Spokeo case back down to the district court and leaves in place the divergent application of the Supreme Court’s 2016 opinion.