On November 12, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case that would have clarified an important issue in Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) litigation, a popular source of no-injury class action litigation. The petition sought review of a Ninth Circuit decision in a putative class action holding that an “informational injur[y]” constitutes a “real-world harm” sufficient to establish standing for purposes of FCRA litigation. Petition for Writ of Certiorari at 4, M-I LLC v. Syed, No. 16-1524 (June 19, 2017).
What constitutes an informational injury, practically speaking? The answer is far from clear. In Syed, the alleged “informational injury” arose from the simple fact that the prospective employer combined into one document the required FCRA disclosure with a liability waiver. Syed v. M-I, LLC, 853 F.3d 492, 499 (9th Cir. 2017). Plaintiff’s signature on that single document served as both an authorization for the employer to procure his consumer report and as a broad release of liability. Id. Plaintiff alleged that the combination generated confusion concerning his rights and that he would not have authorized the disclosure had it been a standalone document. Id. The Ninth Circuit held those allegations were sufficient to establish standing. Id. at 500.
Stated more generally, the Ninth Circuit found that an informational injury can arise in the FCRA context “when applicants are deprived of their ability to meaningfully authorize [a] credit check.” Id. at 499. In reaching this conclusion, the court reasoned that FCRA’s requirement that a job candidate authorize the collection of consumer information by a prospective employer creates a right to privacy because the candidate can withhold permission. Id.
But the takeaway is broader: so-called “informational injuries” can provide the requisite injury-in-fact to establish standing to pursue a FCRA claim. This is important because FCRA violations can result in statutory penalties ranging from $100 to $1,000 per violation, as well as punitive damages at the discretion of the court, and attorneys’ fees and costs. On a class level, these numbers add up. In a 1,000 member class, for example, statutory penalties alone can reach $1,000,000.
Syed broadened the universe of harms that may give rise to a FCRA claim, and following the Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari in Syed, the concept of an “informational injury” will continue to be subject to broad judicial interpretation.
The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Syed is also important because it leaves intact the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on the merits. After finding the plaintiff had standing, the court went on to hold that the prospective employer’s combination of the required FCRA disclosure with a liability waiver was not only a statutory violation, but a willful violation of the statute. Id. at 503. Effectively, the court held that the combination of the forms was knowing or reckless. Id. (citing Safeco Insurance co. of America v. Burr, 551 U.S. 47 (2007)). Under this precedent, employers will continue to face the risk of FCRA liability from even technical violations.
The landscape is different in other circuits. In August of this year, for example, the Seventh Circuit considered an analogous situation to Syed and came to the opposite conclusion. Groshek v. Time Warner Cable, Inc., 865 F.3d 884 (7th Cir. 2017). In that case, the plaintiff alleged that the prospective employer’s failure to provide a FCRA compliant disclosure constituted a concrete informational injury. In Groshek, like Syed, the alleged violation stemmed from the inclusion of “extraneous information” in the disclosure. Id. at 885. The Seventh Circuit found, however, that while the plaintiff had alleged a statutory violation, it was “completely removed from any concrete harm or appreciable risk of harm.” Id. at 887.
But Groshek distinguished Syed on the facts. The Seventh Circuit reasoned that Syed, unlike Groshek, presented factual allegations plausibly suggesting that the disclosure, as structured, created confusion, and that the plaintiff in Syed would not have signed the disclosure had it been a standalone document, as required by the FCRA. Id. at 889.
The Supreme Court’s denial of certiorari preserves this arguable split in circuit authority for now. But if the plaintiff in Groshek has his way, the issue will be before the Supreme Court soon. On October 30, 2017, the Groshek plaintiff petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari.
Until the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the Groshek appeal, employers concerned about potential FCRA liability should give careful attention to their disclosure forms to ensure they comply with the letter of the statute, to minimize the risk of litigation. If certiorari is granted, regardless of how the Supreme Court decides the matter, the issue of FCRA standing and injury could finally be clarified.