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U.S. Supreme Court Issues Important Opinion on Article III Standing

Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S.Ct. 1540 (2016).

The issue in this case revolves around whether the respondent (Robins) had standing to maintain an action in federal court against the petitioner (Spokeo) for alleged violations of the FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act).

The procedural history of this case consists of the District Court dismissing Robins’ complaint for lack of standing with a panel of the Ninth Circuit reversing the District Court’s ruling. Ultimately, the Supreme Court determined the Ninth Circuit’s analysis was incomplete as review of the injury-in-fact requirement requires a plaintiff to allege an injury that is both concrete and particularized. The Ninth Circuit did not address whether the injury was concrete.

In reaching its conclusion, the Supreme Court discussed Article III of the United States Constitution and indicated Article III standing serves to prevent the judicial process from being used to usurp the powers of the political branches. In order to have standing to sue, the plaintiff must meet three elements: (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. The plaintiff has the burden of proof of establishing these elements and, at the pleading stage, must clearly allege facts demonstrating each element.

This case hinges on whether Robins suffered an injury in fact, one of the required elements to establish standing. In order to establish an injury in fact, a plaintiff must show he/she suffered an invasion of a legally protected interest that is concrete and particularized, as well as, actual or imminent. An injury is particularized if it affects the plaintiff in a personal and individual way. A concrete injury must actually exist.

It is important to note the Court states that even for statutory violations, the plaintiff must have suffered a concrete injury. A plaintiff cannot allege a bare procedural violation and meet the Article III standing requirements. The Court provides the example of an incorrect zip code and indicates that it is difficult to imagine how the dissemination of the incorrect zip code, without more, could cause any concrete harm.

This case has the ability to heavily impact the debt collection industry. Consumer attorneys are already pleading their cases differently to account for the Court’s decision. Defense counsel are trying to see how this opinion can apply in other circumstances such as FDCPA and TCPA cases. We will continue to update clients as to how courts are interpreting Spokeo. Of note, many cases brought against the industry are purely technical. Despite being technical, this opinion will not provide clients the ability to dismiss many of the types of cases you regularly encounter. Spokeo is helpful, but the case is not a panacea.