imagesBy Pam Devata, John Drury, and Robert Szyba

On March 13, 2015, the Solicitor General of the United States filed an amicus brief opposing the petition for writ of certiorari filed in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339 (U.S.). The Spokeo petition poses a question with a significant impact on the future scope of consumer and workplace-related class actions: whether Congress can confer standing on a plaintiff who suffers no concrete harm, but who instead alleges only a statutory violation? To date, ten different amicus briefs have been filed urging the Supreme Court to grant review.

Case Background

In July 2010, Plaintiff Thomas Robins filed a purported class action under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) against Spokeo, Inc., a search engine that compiles publicly available information on individuals into a searchable database. Robins alleged that the search results associated with his name included inaccurate information about him, in violation of the FCRA. Robins did not allege that he suffered actual damages, but only that he was entitled to statutory damages because the FCRA created a private right of action where inaccurate consumer information is reported. The district court dismissed Robins’ complaint, finding that a mere violation of the FCRA does not confer standing “where no injury in fact is properly pled.” 2011 WL 11562151, at *1. 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.”  742 F.3d 409, 413.

In May 2014, Spokeo filed its petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. Spokeo posed this question: “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’s petition identified a circuit split. The Fifth and Sixth Circuits agree with the Ninth Circuit’s Spokeo decision and permit plaintiffs to maintain lawsuits without “injury-in-fact” and based solely on an alleged statutory violation. The Seventh Circuit also has signaled that it agrees with this position. In contrast, the Second, Third and Fourth Circuits have held that Congress cannot create standing by statute alone, and the mere deprivation of a statutory right is insufficient to confer standing.

The Solicitor General Opposes The Grant Of Certiorari

In October 2014, the Supreme Court invited the Solicitor General to file an amicus brief on behalf of the United States. The Supreme Court frequently follows the Solicitor General’s recommendation to grant or deny certiorari. In its opposition to certiorari, the Government essentially recommends that the Supreme Court avoid the broader question of Congressional power to create statutory standing and instead focus on the specifically alleged injury in Spokeo – the public dissemination of inaccurate personal information – and the specific statute at issue – the FCRA. The Government’s position is that a concrete harm exists where a defendant unlawfully disseminates inaccurate personal information. Although the Second, Third and Fourth Circuits have rejected the concept of “statutory standing,” they each did so under other federal statutes.

Implications for Employers

Given the Solicitor General’s recommendation, the Supreme Court may deny certiorari and maintain the uncertain status quo. As a consequence, in some circuits, plaintiffs will be allowed to maintain private causes of action for alleged violations of federal statutes — even where the plaintiffs themselves suffered no actual injury.

If certiorari is granted, the Supreme Court’s ultimate decision will have a significant impact on the future of consumer, workplace, and other class actions. Its impact may reach other federal statutes that authorize private rights of action or statutory damages, such as the Truth in Lending Act, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act. If Spokeo is reversed, plaintiffs would be required to plead and establish actual injury, and not just a violation of the underlying statute. Such a result would undoubtedly limit the number of viable class actions under the FCRA and other federal statutes.

The resolution of the Spokeo petition and appeal stands to dramatically affect employers, consumer reporting agencies, and other corporate defendants. Although the United States’ opposition makes a grant of certiorari less likely, it speaks volumes that ten separate amicus briefs have been filed on behalf of seventeen different companies, trade associations, and other organizations (including the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, Chamber of Commerce of the United States, eBay, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and leading consumer reporting agencies). Their support for resolution of the Spokeo question — whether Congress can confer standing through statute alone — may tip the scales in favor of the grant of certiorari. For the time being, employers will have to wait and see whether the Supreme Court will ultimately entertain this important question.