When Congress authorizes a private right of action based on a statutory violation of federal law, does that authorization also create Article III standing? That is the question on which the Supreme Court recently granted certiorari in Spokeo v. Robins (13-1339). Its resolution could significantly affect litigation in several areas, including consumer finance, housing discrimination, disability rights, and class-action practice.
The case arose when plaintiff Thomas Robins brought a claim against the website operator Spokeo for allegedly violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C § 1681, by publishing “inaccurate consumer information that is marketed to entities performing background checks.” The plaintiff sought class certification on behalf of a class of individuals whose information was similarly inaccurate. Although Robins asserted that he was “concerned that his ability to obtain credit, employment, insurance and the like will be adversely affected,” by the inaccurate information about him contained on Spokeo’s website, he did not assert that any of those negative consequences had yet occurred. Spokeo therefore argued that Robins had not suffered any injury-in-fact, and it sought dismissal of the case.
The district court ultimately agreed with Spokeo’s argument that Robins lacked standing and dismissed the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Robins appealed. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that Robins’s injury was both specific and concrete; the court ruled that because Robins “alleges that Spokeo violated his statutory rights, not just the statutory rights of other people” he is therefore “among the injured,” and his “personal interests in the handling of his credit information are individualized rather than collective.” Robins v. Spokeo, Inc., 742 F.3d 409, 413 (9th Cir. 2014) cert. granted, No. 13-1339 (Apr. 27, 2015). The Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to determine whether a statutory violation is a sufficient “injury in fact” to confer constitutional standing. Without standing, a federal court would lack subject-matter jurisdiction under Article III of the United States Constitution, and would lack the power to hear the case.
Robins raises an important question for civil-rights litigation, much of which depends heavily on statutorily created causes of action. Specifically, what kind of “injury” is required to establish standing, and can the imposition of statutory damage awards suffice? Numerous federal statutes both create affirmative obligations and authorize damage awards to plaintiffs who can show that a defendant breached a statutory obligation. Some of the most frequently invoked statutes include the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the Truth in Lending Act, and the Fair Housing Act. Many of the statutory damages authorized by these statutes are intended to prophylactically avert harm—for example, by authorizing remedies when housing testers uncover discrimination, or by requiring a robust disclosure of information in consumer financial transactions. Thus, a narrow decision on standing could significantly limit litigation under these statutes and would constrain Congress’s ability to authorize private litigation as a means of protecting public rights.
The case is expected to be set for argument in the fall of 2015.
Keywords: litigation, civil rights, standing, Fair Credit Reporting Act, FCRA, Fair Housing Act
— Cassandra Robertson, professor of law; director of center for professional ethics, Case Western University School of Law