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The Supreme Court Sends Spokeo Back

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court decided one of the Term’s most closely watched cases: Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins.  The 6-2 decision, while far from sweeping, creates a hurdle for plaintiffs in “no-injury” class actions.

The named plaintiff, Thomas Robins, alleged that Spokeo Inc., a people-search website, had published incorrect information about him on the Internet, in violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).  He maintained that he had standing to sue because: (1) Congress created a private right of action for violations of the FCRA, and (2) the publication of false information caused him “emotional distress” and jeopardized his employment prospects.

The Ninth Circuit held that Robins’s first allegation was enough for Article III standing.  It was sufficient, Judge O’Scannlain reasoned, (1) that Robins had alleged that “Spokeo violated his rights,” and (2) that Robins’s “personal interests in the handling of his credit information are individualized rather than collective.”

The Supreme Court vacated and remanded.  Justice Alito, writing for the majority, held that even if Spokeo had affected Robins “in a personal and individualized way,” that is not enough—on its own—to confer Article III standing.  Rather, the Court held, an “injury in fact must also be “concrete.”  And a concrete injury requires more than “a statute [that] grants a person a statutory right and purports to authorize that person to vindicate that right.”

The Supreme Court ultimately punted on whether Robins’s other alleged injury—emotional distress and jeopardized employment prospects—was concrete enough.  Because the Ninth Circuit “failed to fully appreciate the distinction between concreteness and particularization,” the Supreme Court vacated and remanded for further proceedings.

In a dissent, Justice Ginsburg joined by Justice Sotomayor, disagreed that Robins had failed to plead a concrete injury.  “Robins complains of misinformation about his education, family situation, and economic status, inaccurate representations that could affect his fortune in the job market.”  Those allegations, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor argued, were enough in their view to constitute a concrete injury and to allow the case to proceed.

But the majority in Spokeo makes clear that mere allegations of a statutory violation—without some other concrete injury—is not enough for Article III standing.  What qualifies as “concrete” will need to be worked out by the lower courts.