Class Can Sue Data Aggregator Spokeo, Ninth Circuit Says

(CN) — The Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday that online data aggregator Spokeo must face a class action lawsuit from a man who says the website displayed inaccurate information about him: falsely calling him wealthy and well-educated.

Virginia resident Thomas Robins sued Spokeo in 2010, claiming the site falsely described him as wealthy and well-educated, which he feared would affect his job search because companies might reject him as overqualified.

Robins’ profile on Spokeo had his age wrong, and falsely said he was married with children and had a graduate degree, according to his lawsuit.

He sued the company in Los Angeles Federal Court, alleging violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright dismissed for lack of standing, and also dismissed an amended complaint, finding Robins did not show he had suffered any actual harm.

A Ninth Circuit panel revived the case in 2014.

“The statutory cause of action does not require a showing of actual harm when a plaintiff sues for willful violations,” Ninth Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain wrote then.

“When, as here, the statutory cause of action does not require proof of actual damages, a plaintiff can suffer a violation of the statutory right without suffering actual damages.”

The U.S. Supreme Court last year reversed the Ninth Circuit, with Justice Samuel Alito writing for the 6-2 majority that a “bare procedural violation” of a credit reporting statute is not enough to show injury.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in dissent that Robins was harmed by the inaccuracies on the Spokeo page, which created the impression that he was overqualified for work.

“Robins would not qualify, the Court observes, if he alleged a ‘bare’ procedural violation … one that results in no harm, for example, ‘an incorrect zip code,’” Ginsburg wrote. “Far from an incorrect zip code, Robins complains of misinformation about his education, family situation, and economic status, inaccurate representations that could affect his fortune in the job market.”

On remand from the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday that Robins had standing to sue Spokeo under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Because the Spokeo page had already been published, Robins alleged injuries that were “concrete” enough to establish standing, according to the unanimous three-member panel.

Writing for the court, O’Scannlain noted that the Supreme Court “gave little guidance as to what varieties of misinformation should fall into the harmless category, beyond the example of an erroneous zip code.”

“It does not take much imagination to understand how inaccurate reports on such a broad range of material facts about Robins’s life could be deemed a real harm,” O’Scannlain wrote, reversing and remanding.

Robins’ attorney Jay Edelson called it a “terrific decision” on Twitter, and told The Consumerist that “litigants need not show ‘additional injury’ beyond what Congress has articulated.”

Spokeo was disappointed, saying in a statement that it agreed Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s prior observation that “the class … is not going to be certified.” Spokeo vowed to continue the fight at the district court.

Cases like Robins’ are “the kinds of no-injury class actions that many companies face and that can stifle innovation,” Spokeo said in the statement.

Ninth Circuit Judges Susan P. Graber and Carlos T. Bea joined O’Scannlain on the panel.

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