SCOTUS Decision in Spokeo Creates Additional Obstacle for Plaintiffs Seeking Redress for Statutory Violations

Chris Spiers
May 18, 2016

On Monday, the Supreme Court delivered an opinion in Spokeo v. Robins that raises the bar for class action plaintiffs bringing suit for violations of federal statutes, such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 (FCRA). In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court held that Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation, at the same time confirming that an intangible injury can be considered “concrete” under the right circumstances.

Plaintiff Thomas Robins filed suit under the FCRA after Spokeo, a consumer reporting agency, published incorrect information about him on its “people search engine.” According to the complaint, Spokeo willfully violated the FCRA by publishing false information regarding Robins’ age, income, and marital status. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that Robins failed to meet Article III’s standing requirements because he did not allege that the false report resulted in an injury-in-fact. The Ninth Circuit reversed the decision, holding that it was enough for Robins to allege that Spokeo violated an individual right imposed by statute. Monday’s ruling vacates that decision and remands the case to the Ninth Circuit.

According to Justice Alito’s majority opinion, the Ninth Circuit erred in its Article III standing analysis by failing to address the requirement that an injury be “concrete,” as well as “particularized.” According to the decision, “Robins could not, for example, allege a bare procedural violation, divorced from any concrete harm, and satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III.” Instead, the Court held that “a ‘concrete’ injury must be ‘de facto’; that is, it must actually exist,”in order to satisfy Article III. At the same time, the Court pointed out that “’[c]oncrete is not, however, necessarily synonymous with ‘tangible.’” Instead, the Court recognized that an intangible right may provide the foundation for Article III standing if there is a ”close relationship” between the alleged intangible harm and a harm traditionally recognized by Congress and common law.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas reached the same conclusion via an historical analysis of private versus public rights provided by statute. His concurrence points out that the concept of injury-in-fact differs depending on the nature of the suit. According to Justice Thomas, a private plaintiff bringing suit to protect his own statutory rights need not allege actual harm beyond the violation of that particular right, while a private plaintiff bringing suit to protect the public’s statutory rights must make a showing of concrete and particularized harm.

In dissent, Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, disagreed that remand was necessary because the injuries alleged in the complaint were both particularized and concrete. Particularly disturbing to Justice Ginsburg was the fact that the incorrect information on Spokeo’s website included a picture, as well as information about Robin’s finances and marital status.

In a score for class action defendants, the Spokeo decision makes it clear that bare allegations that a consumer protection statute was violated will no longer be enough for a class action plaintiff to advance past the pleading stage. Moreover, although the opinion leaves the door open for suits based on intangible injuries, the majority cautions that such injuries would have to reflect an injury that the courts, as well as Congress, have previously been determined to be particularized and concrete enough to satisfy Article III.