May 16, 2016

Supreme Court Decides Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins

On May 16, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339, vacating the decision of the Ninth Circuit and remanding to the Ninth Circuit to consider the “concrete-injury” requirement for standing under Article III of the Constitution.

Spokeo operates an online “people search engine” that people can use to search for information about other people. Robins alleged that Spokeo was disseminating incorrect information about him—specifically, that he was married, had children, was in his 50s, had a job, was relatively affluent, and held a graduate degree, when none of those things was true.

Robins sued Spokeo, alleging that Spokeo willfully violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by publishing inaccurate information about him—a violation that would enable Robins to recover (among other things) either actual damages or statutory damages of $100 to $1,000 per violation, and possibly punitive damages. The district court dismissed his complaint, concluding that Robins had not suffered a sufficient injury in fact to satisfy the standing requirement of Article III of the Constitution. But the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Robins had adequately alleged injury in fact because he alleged violations of his own statutory rights, and not just the statutory rights of others. The Ninth Circuit commented that “the violation of a statutory right is usually a sufficient injury in fact to confer standing.”

The Supreme Court concluded that the Ninth Circuit’s standing analysis was incomplete, and accordingly vacated and remanded the case to the Ninth Circuit for further proceedings. The Court explained that to show injury in fact, a plaintiff must show that he suffered a “concrete and particularized” invasion of a legally protected interest. The Court concluded that the Ninth Circuit addressed the requirement that injury be “particularized,” but not the additional requirement that injury be “concrete.” The fact that Robins alleged that Spokeo violated his own statutory rights, and not just the statutory rights of other people, goes to the particularization requirement. But concreteness is different: a concrete injury “must actually exist” and must be “‘real,’ and not ‘abstract.’” The Court explained that a concrete injury could be tangible or intangible, and that history and practice are instructive in determining whether an asserted intangible injury is sufficiently concrete. “[I]t is instructive to consider whether an alleged intangible harm has a close relationship to a harm that has traditionally been regarded as providing a basis for a lawsuit in English or American courts.” The Court also explained that Congress could “elevate to the status of legally cognizable injuries concrete, de facto injuries that were previously inadequate in law.” But the Court clarified that a plaintiff would not necessarily satisfy the concreteness requirement whenever a statute grants a person a right to sue: a plaintiff must always show a concrete injury, even in the context of a statutory violation. In short, the Court concluded, Congress could not “erase Article III’s standing requirements by statutorily granting the right to sue to a plaintiff who would not otherwise have standing.”

As applied to Robins, these rules meant that Congress could seek through the FCRA to curb the dissemination of false consumer information by adopting procedures designed to decrease that risk, but Robins could not satisfy the requirements of Article III simply by alleging a procedural violation.

The Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision and remanded the case for the Ninth Circuit to address “whether the particular procedural violations alleged in this case entail a degree of risk sufficient to meet the concreteness requirement” of Article III. The Court expressed no view on whether Robins had satisfied the Article III requirements, and left that decision to the Ninth Circuit on remand.

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, and Kagan joined. Justice Thomas filed a concurring opinion. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Sotomayor joined.

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