On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decision in Spokeo v. Robins, holding that a technical violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) would not be enough to confer Article III standing on the plaintiff absent an allegation of a “concrete” injury sufficient to confer constitutional standing.  The 6-2 decision vacated and remanded a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which had found that the plaintiff did not need to allege actual injury to maintain a claim for a statutory violation.

In Spokeo, the plaintiff, Thomas Robins, claimed that Spokeo Inc. was a “consumer reporting agency” subject to the FCRA and that it had violated the FCRA by publishing false and inaccurate information about him on its website.  Rather than seeking actual damages for the alleged harm, Robbins relied on the FCRA’s “willful violation” provision, 15 U.S.C. § 1681n, which provides for statutory damages in the range of $100 to $1,000 for willful FCRA violations.  The district court dismissed the complaint for lack of standing, but the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Robins’ allegations were sufficient because he alleged that “Spokeo violated his statutory rights, not just the statutory rights of other people” and that his “personal interests in the handling of his credit information are individualized rather than collective.”

The Supreme Court held that the Ninth Circuit’s analysis was incomplete.  Standing to sue requires that a plaintiff have suffered an injury in fact, which in turn requires that the plaintiff show that his injury is both particularized and concrete.  Even where a statute grants a person a statutory right and purports to authorize that person to sue to vindicate that right, that does not relieve plaintiffs of showing at the pleading stage some concrete injury.  Thus, it is not enough for the plaintiff to “allege a bare procedural violation, divorced from any concrete harm.”  

According to the Court, the Ninth Circuit’s decision adequately considered the requirement that Robins’ injury be particularized but contained no discussion of the concreteness requirement.  Therefore, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit to consider “whether the particular procedural violations alleged in this case entail a risk sufficient to meet the concreteness requirement.” 

In a concurring opinion, Justice Thomas emphasized the different policy considerations that apply when a plaintiff is suing to vindicate a public, as opposed to a private, right.  Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, dissented, explaining that she agreed with much of the opinion, but believed that the plaintiff had met the concreteness standard by claiming that the incorrect information hurt him with potential employers.

Reporter, Ashley Guffey, Atlanta, + 1 404 572 2763, aguffey@kslaw.com.