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What’s at Stake in the Supreme Court’s Decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins?

Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins—which involves the question of whether Congress, by authorizing a private right of action based on a violation of a federal statute, can confer Article III standing upon a plaintiff who has suffered no concrete harm—is one of the most eagerly anticipated decisions from the Supreme Court’s October 2015 term.  The petitioner’s and respondent’s primary briefing have now been filed with the Court, offering a glimpse into the arguments that we will see at oral argument in the fall.  Significantly, in their briefing, Spokeo and Robins both emphasize the potential impact of this decision not only for the future of privacy and data-breach litigation, but also for the scope of the federal courts’ Article III jurisdiction in general.

Spokeo, Inc. operates a website, marketed as a “people search engine,” that sells reports of aggregated, publicly available information about individuals, such as contact data, marital status, age, occupation, economic health, and wealth level.  Robins alleged that Spokeo created and made available for purchase a report associated with his name that contained several pieces of inaccurate information.  Specifically, he claimed that Spokeo’s report stated that Robins had a graduate degree (when he does not), that he was employed and wealthy (when he actually was unemployed), and that Robins was married with children (both inaccurate).

Robins sued Spokeo under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1681.  In his amended complaint, Robins alleged that the inaccurate information in Spokeo’s report had harmed his employment prospects and that he experienced “anxiety, stress, concern, and/or worry about his diminished employment prospects.”  Robins’s suit alleged that Spokeo’s violations of the FCRA were willful and sought statutory damages of between $100 and $1,000 for the alleged willful violations.

The district court dismissed Robins’s suit for lack of standing, but the Ninth Circuit reversed.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that Robins had standing under Article III because he sued over violations of statutory rights created by the FCRA, which, the Court held, are “concrete, de facto injuries.”  The Ninth Circuit reasoned that Robins had satisfied the legal requirements for standing to sue on these statutory rights because he alleged that Spokeo violated his statutory rights, not just the statutory rights of other people, and because Robins’s personal interests in the handling of his credit information were individualized, rather than collective.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, Spokeo argues that the Ninth Circuit erred in permitting Robins “to maintain a lawsuit in federal court based solely on an injury in law untethered to any concrete harm—in other words, without any real-world injury.”  Spokeo asserts that, if the Ninth Circuit’s decision is not overturned, the Article III standing requirements would devolve into an “empty formality,” allowing any plaintiff to satisfy standing by asserting a violation of a technical requirement imposed under the FCRA or other statutes.

Furthermore, Spokeo claims that the Ninth Circuit’s decision would cause separation-of-powers problems by allowing Congress to expand the “case or controversy” requirement to matters that do not involve any concrete harm.  Spokeo argues that this would contravene the Anglo-American tradition that limits the Judiciary’s power to matters involving actual or imminently threatened injury.  Moreover, Spokeo asserts, by authorizing private parties to sue over statutory violations that have caused them no harm, Congress would be able to impermissibly delegate the authority to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” U.S. Const. art. II, § 3, from the Executive to private individuals.  Such “arbitrary exercise of unaccountable enforcement power,” Spokeo claims, “would erode individual liberty.”

In his response brief, Robins argues that the Supreme Court’s “modern standing jurisprudence has repeatedly confirmed that the invasion of an individual’s legal right—including a private right created by statute—is alone injury sufficient to support Article III standing.”  Robins analogizes his suit to other types of cases (including assault, trespass, defamation, and voting rights claims) in which he claims the “the invasion of a legally protected interest is actionable without consequential harm.”

Fundamentally, Robins disagrees with Spokeo’s assertion that Article III standing requires the plaintiff to show a “real-world injury” to invoke federal jurisdiction.  Rather, Robins argues, the Court’s jurisprudence establishes that the “hard floor” of Article III that Congress cannot remove by statute is the prohibition on suits asserting abstract, speculative, and generalized grievances.  In Robins’s words, “This line between abstract, speculative, and generalized grievances on the one hand, and concrete, actual, and particularized invasions of legal rights on the other, is what defines Article III standing.”

Regardless, Robins argues that, even if Spokeo’s “real world injury” standard is accepted, he has asserted a real-world injury (as Robins calls it, “wallet injury”) because he is entitled to statutory damages for willful invasion of his rights under the FCRA.  Spokeo, on the other hand, contends that the possibility of statutory damages is merely a byproduct of the lawsuit that cannot give rise to cognizable injury for Article III purposes.  This point is significant because it signals the possibility that the Court may not reach the question of whether or not a “bare violation” of the FCRA is sufficient to confer standing, if it concludes that Robins has adequately alleged injury as a result of his loss of statutory damages.

In its amicus brief, the Solicitor General sided with Robins, asserting that the FCRA creates a legal right to avoid the dissemination of inaccurate personal information.  The Solicitor General argues that, under the Supreme Court’s prior decisions, a violation of that legal right is sufficient to confer Article III standing on a plaintiff, regardless of whether the plaintiff can identify any further consequential harm caused by the violation.

The case is slated for oral argument on November 2.  We will continue to monitor closely, so stay tuned for further updates.  Whichever side the Court agrees with, this case is shaping up to have a significant impact on the future of Article III jurisprudence.