California District Court Dismisses Putative Class Action Against Apple on Article III Standing Grounds Where Privacy Claims Rested on “Attenuated Chain of Possibilities”

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Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), courts have grappled with what constitutes a sufficient injury in fact to satisfy Article III standing requirements. Predominant Issues has regularly reported how the lower courts have sometimes diverged in their conclusions about the types of injuries that are “concrete” versus merely “speculative” (see previous Spokeo reporting here). Most recently, the Northern District of California has entered the fray, concluding that plaintiffs lacked standing to bring claims against Apple for alleged privacy violations that the court deemed overly speculative.

  • In Lopez et al. v. Apple, plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Apple for alleged violations of various state and federal privacy laws. Plaintiffs owned Apple iPhones that came pre-installed with Siri, a virtual assistant trained in voice recognition.
  • In 2019, an article published in The Guardian reported that Siri was routinely triggered accidentally and sometimes recorded iPhone users’ conversations without their consent or knowledge. The article, based on alleged whistleblower information, further reported that Apple intentionally disclosed some of these intercepted communications to third party contractors for evaluation, sometimes exposing them to “private discussions between doctors and patients, confidential business deals, and sexual encounters.” The plaintiffs brought a class action alleging that Apple illegally recorded and transmitted their conversations, relying heavily on The Guardian’s reporting and not based on any first-hand knowledge or experience with their Apple iPhones.
  • The district court found these allegations lacking. First, the court found that plaintiffs did not allege that their particular conversations had either been improperly recorded or transmitted to third parties, as only some users and some conversations were affected. Second, the article had focused on two Apple products the plaintiffs did not own—the Apple Watch and HomePod speakers.
  • The court determined that plaintiffs' two standing theories—based on alleged privacy and economic harms—failed to sufficiently allege an injury in fact.
  • Specifically, the court concluded that the alleged privacy invasions were too speculative to confer Article III standing because they hinged upon an “attenuated chain of possibilities that (1) their iPhones were accidentally triggered at some point, (2) the accidental triggers occurred in a context where Plaintiffs had a reasonable expectation of privacy, and (3) … Plaintiffs’ communications were part of the ‘small portion’ of recordings sent to third party contractors.”
    • The court noted that plaintiffs could show Article III standing only if they are able to plead “factual allegations regarding the rate of accidental triggers on devices that Plaintiffs actually own, as well as their particular use of those devices in contexts where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
  • The court rejected plaintiffs’ alleged economic injuries for similar reasons: namely, they had failed to plead facts showing that “they themselves overpaid for the devices” (as opposed to other class members whose communications were intercepted). Additionally, plaintiffs failed to allege they purchased their devices in reliance on specific representations that Siri would not be accidentally triggered, which was fatal to their benefit-of-the-bargain damages theory.
  • Because of plaintiffs’ failure to allege any specific communications were intercepted, the court dismissed the remaining claims, including alleged violations of the Federal Wiretap Act, the Stored Communications Act, and the California Invasion of Privacy Act.
  • This decision shows that it is insufficient for standing under Spokeo to establish that some putative class members were harmed; rather, the named plaintiff must plausibly allege either that they have personally suffered the specific harm identified or that they face a “certainly impending” risk that such injury will occur in the future, as required by Clapper v. Amnesty International USA, 568 U.S. 398 (2013). While some courts pay short shrift to this requirement and allow hypothetical-harm claims to proceed, the Lopez court took Clapper’s “certainly impending” language seriously by requiring plaintiffs to plead specific facts about the rate at which accidental intercepts occur; otherwise, the district court could not meaningfully assess whether plaintiffs’ claims were unduly speculative.
  • Read the court’s decision here.

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