By Esther Slater McDonald

Seyfarth Synopsis: In Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a plaintiff must have a concrete injury to sue for FCRA violations. Following Spokeo’s remand, courts have held that consumers have standing to sue if their reports are inaccurate even if an inaccuracy did not adversely affect them.

In Spokeo, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that plaintiffs seeking to sue in federal court must have a concrete, actual injury; a mere statutory violation is not enough. The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case for the Ninth Circuit to determine whether the plaintiff had alleged a concrete injury. (See our prior posts hereherehere, and here for a summary of the case background and a more detailed explanation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.)

The Ninth Circuit’s Ruling on Remand

On remand, in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the plaintiff had sufficiently pled a concrete injury in fact and thus had standing to proceed with his FCRA claims. The court stated that, although a plaintiff may not show an injury-in-fact merely by pointing to a statutory violation, “some statutory violations, alone, do establish concrete harm.” To determine whether a statutory violation is itself a concrete injury, the court created a two-part test that asks (1) whether the statutory provision at issue was established to protect the consumer’s concrete interests (as opposed to purely procedural rights), and, if yes, (2) whether the specific procedural violation alleged actually harmed or presented a material risk of harm to those interests.

On the first question, the Ninth Circuit noted that the plaintiff had alleged a violation of the FCRA’s requirement that a consumer reporting agency have reasonable procedures in place to ensure the maximum possible accuracy in reporting. The court concluded that this provision “protect[s] consumers’ concrete interests” in accurate reporting and consumer privacy and that these interests are “‘real’ rather than purely legal creations.” The court reasoned that “given the ubiquity and importance of consumer reports in modern life—in employment decisions, in loan applications, in home purchases, and much more—the real-world implications of material inaccuracies in those reports seem patent on their face.” The court also noted that “the interests that FCRA protects also resemble other reputational and privacy interests that have long been protected in the law.”

As to the second question, the Ninth Circuit stated that it required an “examination of the nature of the specific alleged reporting inaccuracies to ensure that they raise a real risk of harm to the concrete interests that the FCRA protects.” The court concluded that, while a benign inaccuracy may not be harmful, the plaintiff had raised a real risk of harm by alleging that the defendant had inaccurately reported that he was married, had children, was in his 50’s, was employed, had a graduate degree, and was financially stable. The court reasoned that this information “is the type that may be important to employers or others making use of a consumer report.”

The Ninth Circuit held that whether an employer or other end user considered the inaccurate information was irrelevant. Although the defendant argued that the plaintiff must show that the information actually harmed his employment prospects or presented a material or impending risk of doing so, the court disagreed. In the court’s view, “[t]he threat to a consumer’s livelihood is caused by the very existence of inaccurate information in his credit report and the likelihood that such information will be important to one of the many entities who make use of such reports.” Thus, a materially inaccurate report is itself a concrete injury.

Although the Ninth Circuit spoke of harm and materiality, the crux of the opinion appears to be that any inaccuracy will provide standing if it involves information that a user of a report may consider even if no one ever does consider it. And that is how one court recently interpreted the ruling.

In Alame v. Mergers Marketinga judge in the Western District of Missouri held that a plaintiff had standing to sue because he alleged that the defendant’s reporting made it appear that he moved around a lot. The plaintiff’s background report included 22 address entries for him. Some of the address entries were for the same location but varied as to the formatting of the address. The plaintiff claimed that reporting formatting variations inaccurately conveyed that he had lived at 22 different locations. The plaintiff did not allege that anyone had interpreted the report that way or that he had not lived at those locations. Nonetheless, quoting Robins, the court held that a plaintiff is injured by “‘the very existence of inaccurate information in his credit report.’”

Potential Conflict with Spokeo and Dreher

The Ninth Circuit’s opinion is difficult to reconcile with Spokeo. In Spokeo, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, to be sufficient, an injury must “actually exist” and clarified that “not all inaccuracies cause harm or present any material risk of harm” to a plaintiff. Yet, the Ninth Circuit held that an inaccurate report is itself a concrete injury even if the only people who received the report were the plaintiff and his lawyer. (The plaintiff did not allege that the defendant had furnished his report to anyone other than the plaintiff and his lawyer.)

The Ninth Circuit’s position also seems to conflict with the Fourth Circuit’s ruling in Dreher v. Experian Information SolutionsIn that case, the plaintiff sued a consumer reporting agency for inaccurately identifying the source of credit information in his report. The Fourth Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the inaccuracy itself was an injury. Instead, the court held that a plaintiff must show that he “was adversely affected by the alleged error on his report.” The court reasoned that an inaccuracy “work[s] no real world harm” unless it has a negative impact on the consumer.

Implications for Businesses

Robins and Dreher indicate that the federal courts are still grappling with Spokeo’s meaning. We expect the issue will continue to percolate in the federal courts. If the divide on Spokeo’s application deepens among the federal courts of appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court may revisit the standing issue to provide more clarity.

For now, under Robins, consumers may be able to bring FCRA claims in federal court whenever their reports contain inaccurate information unless that information is truly benign, such as when an address contains a mistyped zip code. Even if a plaintiff lacks Article III standing under Dreher, he or she may be able to proceed in state court in jurisdictions that recognize broad standing to sue for any statutory violation.

For this reason, employers obtaining background checks should be careful to comply with each of the FCRA’s highly technical requirements. Failing to comply with a requirement could expose a company to class action liability even if the violation did not impact hiring. Employers should consider conducting a privileged compliance review of their background screening process, including the notices used and the procedures followed for obtaining and using background reports. Employers should also review their policies regarding requesting and using salary history and criminal history in light of the increasing number of jurisdictions that restrict use of such information and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s continued interest in background screening policies that may have a disparate impact on minorities.

If you have questions about these or other issues, please reach out to the author or your Seyfarth attorney.

 

Data privacy issues keeping you awake at night?  Our colleagues, part of Seyfarth’s Global Privacy and Security Team (GPS), are here to help shed some light on this increasingly more complex body of law.  See the blog posted here.  Also, please consider joining us up for an upcoming webinar, on September 22, 2015, that will address Information Security Policies and Data Breach Response Plans.