The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari to determine whether Spokeo, Inc., should be held liable for violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Spokeo's appeal was made after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of plaintiff Thomas Robins, finding data broker Spokeo liable for publishing false information regarding his wealth, education and marital status.
Robins, a Virginia man, claims that when Spokeo, known as the “people search engine,” posted the inaccurate information about him that prevented him from getting a job, causing him financial and emotional harm. At the time, Spokeo was marketing its information to businesses and human resources professionals. Robins is not the first plaintiff to take issue with Spokeo's business practices, as the search site settled with the Federal Trade Commission in 2012 to the tune of $800,000.
Spokeo, Inc., is a website that uses public information to compile personal reports from aggregated data with the help of deep web crawlers. It obtains the information it places on its website from both online and offline sources. Founded in 2006 by a group who graduated from Stanford University, the site has evolved to become an information-gathering website that purports to know the income, religion, credit status, number of people per household, spouse names, and the satellite view of a given individual's home.
A registration is required to use Spokeo, but after paying, many of the users have found that the information shown on the free version of the site is inaccurate, and that attempting to cancel the service or get a refund is extremely difficult. The Consumer Affairs website has logged more than 100 negative reviews regarding Spokeo, with almost every post rating the company one out of five stars. Comments disparage the company's business practices, such as:
The suit against Spokeo seeks class action status, which under the U.S. Fair Credit Reporting Act would authorize damages of at least $100 for each victim.
The central question before the Supreme Court is whether Congress may confer Article III standing upon a plaintiff who has suffered 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. A 2001 Supreme Court decision already determined that federal courts have the jurisdictional power to hear a plaintiff's case only if a plaintiff has suffered an injury that is “concrete and particularized,” as well as “actual or imminent.”
Robins remains confident that American law has long recognized injuries stemming from the publication of false information. Regardless, the outcome of this case will have broad implications for businesses, as it could affect the laws governing copyrights, real-estate settlements, employee benefits, disabilities, and housing discrimination. Businesses supporting Spokeo in this case include eBay Inc., Facebook Inc., Google Inc., and Yahoo! Inc.
The Supreme Court will hear the case during its term beginning in October, after rejecting a recommendation from the Obama Administration that categorized the appeal as a poor candidate for Supreme Court review.
The case is Spokeo v. Robins, 13-1339.