This week the Supreme Court ruled that the Ninth Circuit failed to fully consider the question of the “concreteness” of an injury complained of by a plaintiff in a cause of action for invasion of privacy. Plaintiff Thomas Robbins filed a case against the “people search engine” website Spokeo, Inc. after discovering that the website displayed incorrect information about him.
Spokeo draws information from around the web to create “profiles” about an individual, which contains personal information. Robbins' Spokeo profile asserts that he is married with children, is in his 50s, is employed, and has a graduate degree. None of the information is correct.
Robbins filed a class-action lawsuit against the company arguing that Spokeo failed to adhere to Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The FCRA requires consumer reporting agencies to “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy” of consumer reports. The FCRA places liability on companies who willfully fail to comply with these regulations.
Robbins also asserted that the misinformation on his profile hurt his chances at employment by making him appear overqualified. He alleges that the misinformation makes him seem less mobile for job opportunities because his profile says he is married with a child. Robbins also argues that employers might believe that his salary demands would be too high since his Spokeo profile lists him with a master's degree.
Policy and legal experts on privacy were closely following the case to see if the Supreme Court's ruling would significantly change the manner in which privacy violations would be litigated. Instead, in a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the lower Ninth Court failed to fully consider the question of the “concreteness” of the injury that Robbins sustained from the misinformation. The court took no position as to whether the Ninth Circuit's ruling was correct.
Under FCRA, plaintiffs must be able to prove that a company's failure to adhere to the act resulted in a “concrete injury” to the plaintiff. An incorrect address, for example, does not warrant a lawsuit if it did not harm the plaintiff.
The decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, stated that it was unclear whether the injury in this case was “concrete” because the lower court had failed to fully consider the fact. The majority ruled that the injury does not need to be “tangible” or physically present, but it does need to be concrete as opposed to hypothetical.
The court did rule that a concrete injury from misinformation can be held against a company, but referred the case back to the Ninth Circuit to consider if this case meets the concrete injury standard.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented along with Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Both agreed with the majority on the basis of its opinion, but argued that the plaintiff already met the “concreteness” standard through his claim that his future employment prospects were damaged by the misinformation.
Both parties in the case said they were satisfied with the decision. The lead attorney for Robbins said he was pleased that the decision did not require a “tangible” injury, and Spokeo released a statement saying the company “looks forward to the chance to continue advocating” against the class-action suit.
The case will be reconsidered by the Ninth Circuit Court.