District Court rejects supervisor liability for state employee’s motor vehicle record data breach

by BakerHostetler

In a recent decision, the Federal District Court of Minnesota found that state agencies were not liable in a data breach class action suit involving a rogue employee’s unauthorized viewing of personal information in drivers license records. Kiminiski v. Hunt, No. 13-185 (JNE/TNL) (D. Minn. Sept. 20, 2013). The case arose from the unauthorized viewing of Plaintiffs’ private data from their motor vehicle records by John Hunt, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”) employee. In a consolidated class action complaint, Plaintiffs brought claims for violations of the federal Drivers’ Privacy Protection Act (“DPPA”) and their constitutional right to privacy against Hunt and various employees of the DNR and the state Department of Public Safety (“DPS”), the agency that originally collected the data. All Defendants other than Hunt (the “State Defendants”) brought a motion to dismiss the action arguing that Plaintiffs failed to state a claim for which relief can be granted, and the district court granted the dismissal.

The DPPA generally prohibits state DMVs and other agencies and individuals from disclosing private data held in DMV records, except as authorized by the statute. Specifically, the DPPA allows for a civil claim against any individual who “knowingly obtains, discloses or uses personal information, from a motor vehicle record, for a purpose not permitted” under the statute. 18 U.S.C. § 2724(a). Plaintiffs alleged that the State Defendants violated this section of the DPPA by allowing Hunt to access the private data without safeguards to ensure that his use was for permissible purposes. However, the Court found that the DPPA’s “knowing” disclosure requirement means that the Plaintiffs needed to allege that the State Defendants granted Hunt access to the database with knowledge that he would do so for unpermitted purposes. As Hunt was a state employee whose job required access to the database for legitimate purposes and the complaint alleged no facts that made it plausible that the State Defendants “knowingly” gave defendant Hunt database access “for a purpose not permitted” by the DPPA, the court dismissed the DPPA claims.

Plaintiffs also sought recovery pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which allows for claims for the deprivation of a Constitutional or otherwise federally protected right by a person acting under the color of state law. Plaintiffs alleged that the State Defendants deprived them of their statutory rights created by the DPPA and violated their Constitutional right to privacy by allowing Hunt to access the motor vehicle records. The court dismissed this claim, finding that there is no constitutional right to privacy of motor vehicle record data. Interestingly, the court also dismissed the DPPA-based section 1983 claim because it found that the DPPA’s private cause of action precludes a section 1983 claim to enforce any federally protected right that it may have created because the DPPA’s private right is more restrictive than a section 1983 claim. In doing so, the court disagreed with the Eleventh Circuit and the Northern District of Iowa, which had found otherwise. The court declined to follow Collier v. Dickinson, 477 F.3d 1306, 1309-10 (11th Cir. 2007), noting that the Eleventh Circuit in that case failed to consider whether the DPPA’s private remedy was more restrictive than section 1983’s remedy. Although the North District of Iowa in Arrington v. Richardson, 660 F. Supp. 2d 1024, 1031-32 (N.D. Iowa 2009), did consider the comparative restrictiveness of the remedies, the court here disagreed with the outcome of that comparison. The Arrington court found that the DPPA’s remedy was less restrictive than that under section 1983 because the DPPA has no statute of limitations. In contrast, the Kiminski court found that although there was not explicit statute of limitations, the DPPA has a default four-year limit.

Although the case remains active against Hunt, the Court’s decision limited the liability of his supervisors and spared them from paying potentially extensive damages of $2,500 per breach.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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