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Spokeo v. Robins: Privacy and Rights to Public Information


Oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court case Spokeo v. Robins are scheduled to be heard on November 2. If you haven’t heard about this case yet, you should be warned that the court’s final decision could lead to dire consequences for people who wish to sue over misuse of their personal information.

The plaintiff, Thomas Robins, initiated a putative class action lawsuit against Spokeo, a people search engine that aggregates information from White Pages listings, public records, and social media to help people find and learn about others. This information includes age, past and current addresses and phone numbers, marital status, family members, and even pictures of a person’s residence. According to the website, none of this information is to be deemed usable for any purpose protected by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, but people like Robins agree that inaccuracies displayed by sites like Spokeo could lead to unwanted consequences.

Robins alleges that the company posted false information about his marital status, education, and wealth, claiming that this misrepresentation could lead to a negative effect on his employment prospects, insurance, and credit health. The issue at hand is that the plaintiff, and others in the class, have not suffered concrete injury as a result of Spokeo’s inaccuracies, and the Supreme Court now has to decide whether to confer constitutional standing on plaintiffs who have suffered only hypothetical injuries. They must determine whether Article III of the Constitution allows mass litigation claiming statutory damages for thousands, or potentially even millions, of plaintiffs who have not actually had anything bad happen to them – yet.

According to the Public Justice brief: “It is true that not all FCRA plaintiffs will have yet lost a job, been rejected for a loan, or been turned down for an apartment because of inaccurate information in their consumer files… but for many of them, it is simply a matter of time.”

If Spokeo prevails in this case, existing class actions under a number of consumer and civil rights laws, including those involving housing discrimination and the public’s right to information, will be threatened. In the future, plaintiffs would have to prove that they have suffered tangible, “real- world harm” in order for their claim to be considered viable. Should the Supreme Court decide that constitutional standing cannot be conferred by Congress, people will no longer be able to sue a data broker over misuse of their personal information.

To read more about this case, please click here. For further information about your rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), please visit Atlas Consumer Law online, or speak with a Chicago consumer lawyer from our firm at (312) 313-1613.