Seyfarth Synopsis: On November 6, 2018, the United States Supreme Court signalled that the Article III standing preconditions to federal court litigation, as described in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S .Ct. 1540 (2016), are not likely to be diminished any time soon. The Court did so by requesting supplemental briefing on the application of Spokeo after oral argument had occurred.

In Frank v. Gaos, No. 17-961, awaiting decision by the Court, the plaintiffs alleged that Google violated the Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. § 2710 et seq., by disclosing their search terms, thereby allowing third parties to “reidentify” them and connect them to particular searches. The plaintiffs reached a class action settlement with the defendant in which it agreed to pay $8.5 million into a settlement fund. After accounting for attorneys’ fees and named plaintiff awards, the parties agreed that the money would be distributed to charities (also known as cy pres payments). Two individuals objected that the settlement fund should be distributed to class members rather than to charities. The objections were overruled. The objectors then successfully petitioned for certiorari. The United States filed an amicus brief before oral argument.

Following oral argument, the Court asked the parties and the United States to file supplemental briefing addressing “whether any named plaintiff has standing such that the federal courts have Article III jurisdiction over this dispute.” On November 30, 2018, the United States filed its supplemental brief. The United States took the position that the plaintiffs lack Article III standing, and for that reason, have no federal forum in which to raise their claim.

Spokeo is the backdrop to the unusual request for supplemental briefing and the position of the United States. Spokeo held that a plaintiff seeking to invoke federal jurisdiction must show: (1) an injury in fact (2) caused by the defendant’s conduct that is (3) redressable by a favorable federal court decision. While an injury in fact may exist solely by virtue of statutes creating legal rights, Article III jurisdictional requirements still require a concrete injury.

The United States now argues that plaintiffs in Frank v. Gaos do not allege Article III standing because Congress has not conveyed any express judgment that their alleged injury should provide a basis to sue. The government says that the “search term injury” does not have a foundation in tort law, such as libel or slander law. The government also argues that the allegations about potential reidentification are too speculative to create standing.

There are important lessons to be gleaned from the Frank v. Gaos supplemental briefing and the position of the United States:

1. The Supreme Court remains very interested in whether a federal court plaintiff has a sufficiently concrete injury to earn a federal forum, even if she can show a technical statutory violation.

2. Second, while Congress may impose laws on tech companies using web site data, a consequent inquiry will be — Can a plaintiff show a concrete injury that would allow a lawsuit in federal court? Without a private right of action that allows suit, the data protection law may lack teeth.

3. Third, Frank v. Gaos says nothing about state court jurisdiction. Expect more technical statutory violation cases to be brought in state court, provided standing exists under the state constitution. See, for example, our discussion here. This in turn may make it harder to develop uniform law throughout the Unites States on important social issues.

4. Fourth, the Supreme Court’s focus on Article III standing may be part of a broader push by the Court to limit the role of the federal courts in resolving conflict in the hyper-partisan political times in which we now live. In other words, the Supreme Court may be saying that we live in an federal judicial era where less is more when it comes to federal judicial intervention.

 

On January 10, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied Plaintiff Tiffanie Branch’s renewed motion for class certification in Branch v. Government Employees Insurance Company, No. 3:16-cv-1010, 2018 WL 358504 (E.D. Va. Jan. 10, 2018). In particular, the Court found that the facts underlying her allegations were too individualized and specific to merit class certification. Because of this deficiency, Branch failed to meet, among other criteria, the predominance criterion required by Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. This post examines the interaction between predominance and Article III standing.

Background

In August 2016, Branch accepted a job offer with Defendant GEICO, contingent upon the results of a background check. The background report included a felony conviction that Branch had not disclosed on her application. GEICO preliminarily graded Branch’s report as “Fail” because of the conviction and then contacted Branch by phone. During the call, Branch explained that the conviction was a misdemeanor, not a felony. While Branch averred that GEICO had rescinded the job offer over the phone, GEICO maintained that it had advised her that she would receive a pre-adverse action letter with a copy of the background check and a summary of her rights, including instructions on how to dispute the background report. GEICO sent Branch the letter the next day, and later sent an adverse action letter, indicating that GEICO would not hire her.

On December 30, 2016, Branch filed a putative class action, alleging that GEICO’s hiring process violated section 1681(b)(3)(A) of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”). That section mandates that, prior to taking an adverse action upon a consumer report for employment purposes (such as a background check), the prospective employer must provide a copy of the consumer report and a disclosure of consumer rights. Branch alleged that GEICO’s act of grading applicants “Fail” was an final decision rather than a preliminary one and that thus the adverse action occurred before GEICO provided any notice to the applicant. Branch sought to certify a class of similarly situated individuals who sought employment from GEICO and had their background reports graded “Fail” before GEICO sent the individuals a copy of their reports and a summary of their rights.

In response, GEICO argued that its grading process was not final. GEICO defended that its policy and practice was to grade a background report, provide the applicant a pre-adverse action notice and an opportunity to dispute the report if it was graded “Fail,” and then take final action only after the cure period had expired. GEICO noted that about 25% of applicants graded “Fail” had their grades changed after disputing their background reports. GEICO argued that Branch could not show that common issues would predominate at trial because her claim turned on her individualized allegation that GEICO rescinded her job offer over the phone.

Class Certification: Predominance and Article III Standing

In addition to Rule 23(a)’s requirements for class certification—numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation—a class must also fit within one of the prescribed conditions of Rule 23(b). EQT Prod. Co. v. Adair, 764 F.3d 347, 357 (4th Cir. 2014). In this instance, Branch argued that her proposed class satisfied Rule 23(b)(3) because “questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members . . . .” Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3) (emphasis added).

The Court held that this argument failed in part because of Article III, which necessitated that Branch define her class in a way so that each member had standing. At a minimum, each member must have suffered an injury in fact to satisfy Article III standing. Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992). The court reasoned that, as defined, the class left open the “possibility that some class members did not suffer injuries.” The court noted that it was not the designation of the “Fail” grade on an employment application in response to a criminal background check that created the adverse action in violation of FCRA. Rather, it was only if GEICO diverted from its hiring policy by immediately rescinding a job offer upon the “Fail” designation without a meaningful period to dispute the designation. In other words, the court explained, what purportedly happened to Branch did not necessarily happen to the absent class members. Consequently, the court held that this particularized inquiry “cause[d] individual injury issues to predominate,” sinking Branch’s attempt to certify her defined class.

Implications for Businesses

Businesses facing class action lawsuits should consider all options for defeating class certification. Although the United States Supreme Court has not yet decided whether each putative class member must have standing for a class to be certified, the courts of appeals and the district courts are giving greater scrutiny to this issue. Businesses should investigate claims early to see if there are differences between the named plaintiff and the individuals he or she seeks to represent. Even minor differences, if relevant, can defeat certification.

 

Also By Robert T. Szyba, and Ephraim J. Pierre

Seyfarth Synopsis: In deciding Spokeo v. Robins, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that plaintiffs seeking to establish that they have standing to sue must show “an invasion of a legally protected interest” that is particularized and concrete — that is, the injury “must actually exist.” Bare procedural violations are not enough.supreme-court

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long awaited decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339 (U.S. 2016), which we have been watching closely for its possible dramatic implications on the future of workplace class action litigation.

In a 6 to 2 opinion authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., the Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit’s injury-in-fact analysis under Article III was incomplete. According to the Supreme Court, of the two required elements of injury in fact, the Ninth Circuit addressed only “particularization,” but not “concreteness,” which requires a plaintiff to allege a “real” and not “abstract” injury. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court took no position on the correctness of the Ninth Circuit’s ultimate conclusion: whether Robins adequately alleged an injury in fact.

Based on its conclusion, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s ruling and remanded for further consideration consistent with the Opinion. Justice Thomas concurred, while Justice Ginsburg (joined by Justice Sotomayor) dissented.

Given the stakes and the subject matter, the ruling is a “must read” for corporate counsel and all employers.

The Case’s Background

This ruling is likely to have substantial impact on class action litigation overall, as we have discussed in our prior posts here, here, and here.

In Spokeo, the issues focused on the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”), which requires that consumer reporting agencies (“CRAs”) follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of its consumer reports (15 U.S.C. § 1681e(b)), issue specific notices to providers and users of information (1681e(d)), and post toll-free phone numbers to allow consumers to request their consumer reports (1681b(e)).

The purported CRA in this case was Spokeo, Inc. (“Spokeo”), which operates a “people search engine” — it aggregates publicly available information about individuals from phone books, social networks, marketing surveys, real estate listings, business websites, and other sources, which it organizes into comprehensive, easy-to-read profiles. Notably, Spokeo specifically states that it “does not verify or evaluate each piece of data, and makes no warranties or guarantees about any of the information offered . . .,” and warns that the information is not to be used for any purpose addressed by the FCRA, such as determining eligibility for credit, insurance, employment, etc.

In July 2010, Plaintiff Thomas Robins filed a putative class action alleging that Spokeo violated the FCRA because it presented inaccurate information about him. He alleged that Spokeo reported that he had a greater level of education and more professional experience than he in fact had, that he was financially better off than he actually was, and that he was married (he was not) with children (he did not have any). But beyond identifying the inaccuracies, he did not allege any actual damages. Instead, he argued that Spokeo’s alleged FCRA violation was “willful” and therefore he sought statutory damages of between $100 and $1,000 for himself, as well as for each member of the purported nationwide class.

The district court dismissed the case, finding that “where no injury in fact is properly pled” a plaintiff does not have standing to sue. In February 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the “violation of a statutory right is usually a sufficient injury in fact to confer standing” and that “a plaintiff can suffer a violation of the statutory right without suffering actual damages.”

In its petition for certiorari, Spokeo posed the following question to the Supreme Court: “Whether Congress may confer Article III standing upon a plaintiff who suffers no concrete harm and who therefore could not otherwise invoke the jurisdiction of a federal court, by authorizing a private right of action based on a bare violation of a federal statute.” Spokeo highlighted a circuit split, as the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits previously lined up with the Ninth Circuit’s approach, while the Second, Third, and Fourth Circuits generally disagreed and required an actual, concrete injury.

After being granted certiorari, Spokeo argued that the Ninth Circuit’s holding was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s precedents, the Constitution’s text and history, and principles of separation of powers. More specifically, Spokeo argued that Robin’s bare allegations of FCRA violations, without any accompanying concrete or particularized harm, were insufficient to establish an injury in fact, and thus failed to establish Article III standing.

Robins responded that the Supreme Court’s precedent established that Congressmay create private rights of action to vindicate violations of statutory rights that are redressable through statutory damages.

The U.S. Solicitor General also weighed in, appearing as an amicus in support of Robins, and argued that the Supreme Court should focus on the specific alleged injury — the public dissemination of inaccurate personal information — and, specifically, the FCRA. The Government argued that the FCRA confers a legal right to avoid the dissemination of inaccurate personal information, which is sufficient to confer standing under Article III.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

Writing for the majority on the Supreme Court, Justice Alito held that Ninth Circuit failed to consider both aspects of the injury-in-fact requirement under Article III when analyzing Robin’s alleged injury, therefore its Article III standing analysis was incomplete. Slip. Op. at *8. The Supreme Court determined that to establish injury in fact under Article III, a plaintiff must show that he or she suffered “an invasion of a legally protected interest” that is both “concrete and particularized.” Slip. Op. at *7. For an injury to be “particularized,” it “must affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way.” Id. “Concreteness,” the Supreme Court found “is quite different from particularization.” Id. at *8. A concrete injury must “actually exist” and must be “real” and not “abstract.” Id.

The Supreme Court further stated that concreteness includes both easy to recognize tangible injuries as well as intangible injuries. Id. at 8-9. The Supreme Court instructed that when considering intangible injuries, “both history and the judgment of Congress play important roles.” Id. In particular, Congress may identify intangible harms which meet Article III’s minimum requirements. Id.Nevertheless, the Supreme Court cautioned that plaintiffs do not “automatically” meet the injury-in-fact requirement where the violation of a statutory right provides a private right of action. Id. Thus “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.” Id. The Supreme Court also added that the “risk of real harm” may also satisfy the concreteness requirement, where harms “may be difficult to prove or measure.” Id.

Viewing the FCRA in light of these principles, the Supreme Court recognized that while Congress “plainly sought to curb the dissemination of false information by adopting procedures designed to decrease that risk . . .[,] Robins cannot satisfy the demands of Article III by alleging a bare procedural violation.” For example, the Supreme Court noted it would be “difficult to imagine how the dissemination of an incorrect zip code, without more, could work any concrete harm.” Id. at * 11.

Justice Thomas concurred, reviewing the historical development of the law of standing and its application to public and private rights of action, finding the standing requirement a key component to separation of powers.

Justice Ginsberg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, largely agreed with the majority, but nevertheless dissented. She departed from the majority’s reasoning on the issue of concreteness, but based on the injury alleged, not on the fact that concrete harm wasn’t required. Id. at *3 (Ginsberg, J., dissenting). Under her analysis, Justice Ginsberg would have found that the nature of Robin’s injury was sufficiently concrete because of his allegation that the misinformation caused by Spokeo “could affect his fortune in the job market.” Id. at *3-5 (Ginsberg, J., dissenting).

Implications For Employers

Spokeo can be interpreted as a compromise – with some useful language and reasoning for employers to use in future cases. While the Supreme Court avoided a broader question of Congress’s ability to create private rights of action and other weighty separation of powers issues, it announced the proper analytic framework for assessing the injury-in-fact requirement under Article III. The Supreme Court provided some good news for employers, consumer reporting agencies, and other corporate defendants, as well as potential plaintiffs with respect to class action litigation under a variety of federal statutes, including the FCRA. In particular, the Supreme Court was clear that alleged injuries must be both particular and concrete, meaning that injuries must be “real” and not “abstract.” Thus, a mere procedural violation without any connection to concrete harm cannot satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement of Article III.

However, the Supreme Court may not have shut the door on lawsuits alleging intangible injuries based on violations of statutory rights. While the Supreme Court’s opinion today may discourage some consumer, workplace, and other types of class actions seeking millions in statutory damages, potential litigants will likely have to be more creative in how they frame alleged injuries tied to violations of statutory rights.

Spokeo also transcends the employment context, as the constitutional requirement of Article III applies in all civil litigation. Plaintiffs seeking to file lawsuits in other regulated areas, such as under ERISA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as a host of other statutes are likewise affected by today’s decision. Without particularized, concrete injury, federal jurisdiction is beyond the reach of plaintiffs seeking statutory damages for technical violations.

This blog was cross-posted with our Workplace Class Action Blog:

www.workplaceclassaction.com