On remand from the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that Thomas Robins’ allegations were sufficient to establish standing in his Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) suit against Spokeo Inc.
Back in 2010, 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 Ninth Circuit reversed, leading to the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling that a plaintiff must show a “concrete” injury-in-fact to satisfy Article III.
Applying that standard, the federal appellate panel determined that Robins’ allegation that Spokeo violated the FCRA was enough, by itself, to establish a concrete injury.
The panel first found that the statutory provisions at issue were established to protect Robins’ concrete interests as opposed to his purely procedural rights. The legislative record includes “pages of discussion” of how inaccuracies in consumer reports may harm consumers in light of the increasing importance of consumer reporting. In this context, “it makes sense that Congress might choose to protect against such harms without requiring any additional showing of injury,” the court said.
These harms are similar to others that have traditionally been protected, the panel added, as courts have “long entertained causes of action to vindicate intangible harms caused by certain untruthful disclosures about individuals, and we respect Congress’s judgment that a similar harm would result from inaccurate credit reporting.”
Next, the Ninth Circuit said that Robins had successfully alleged FCRA violations that actually harmed, or at least created a “material risk of harm,” to this concrete interest. The court, after examining the nature of the specific alleged reporting inaccuracies, concluded that Robins’ claims related to facts that were “substantially more likely” to harm his concrete interests than the example of an incorrectly reported ZIP code, which the justices in Spokeo said could not create any concrete harm.
“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 panel 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.”
Ensuring the accuracy of this sort of information seems “directly and substantially” related to the FCRA’s goals, the court said, and the inaccuracies alleged by Robins “do not strike us as the sort of ‘mere technical violation[s]’ which are too insignificant to present a sincere risk of harm to the real-world interests that Congress chose to protect with FCRA.”
The panel rejected Spokeo’s contention that Robins’ allegations were too speculative to establish a concrete injury, noting that both the challenged conduct (the inaccurate information he claimed was reported) and the attendant injury (a negative impact on his job search) already occurred.
In reversing the dismissal of the suit and remanding the matter to the district court, the court concluded, “We are satisfied that Robins has alleged injuries that are sufficiently concrete for the purposes of Article III.”
To read the opinion in Robins v. Spokeo, Inc., click here.
Why it matters: While the Ninth Circuit sided with the plaintiff, the court took pains to explain that not every allegation of a statutory violation can itself establish an injury sufficiently concrete for the purposes of Article III and that not every alleged inaccuracy in a consumer report will satisfy the requirement of a concrete injury to establish standing in an FCRA suit. However, the decision will likely make it harder for defendants in such consumer class actions to get dismissals early in the litigation proceedings.