Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Online-Profile Case Gives Business Narrow Court Win

  • U.S. Supreme Court tells lower court to revisit consumer case
  • 6-2 majority says consumers must show ’concrete’ harm to sue

The U.S. Supreme Court told a lower court to reconsider whether a man can sue over an allegedly error-ridden Internet profile, saying the consumer must show he suffered "concrete" harm to press his case.

The 6-2 ruling Monday is a narrow victory for business groups that were hoping the high court would use the case to rein in lawsuits under more than a dozen federal statutes. The case tested the power of Congress to authorize consumer suits.

The plaintiff, Thomas Robins, said the profile he found about six years ago inaccurately described him as married and wealthy and as having a graduate degree and technical background.

The profile, created by the data broker Spokeo Inc., allegedly said Robins was in his 50s, more than double his actual age, and included a picture of someone else. Robins claimed the profile undercut his job search. A trial judge concluded he wasn’t harmed, but a San Francisco-based appeals court disagreed and allowed the suit.

Robins sued Spokeo under the U.S. Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires credit-reporting agencies to adopt “reasonable procedures” to ensure against inaccuracies and says victims can collect from $100 to $1,000 each.

At issue was a core constitutional question: whether Congress can pass a law authorizing people to sue and win damages even if they haven’t suffered any clear harm.

Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said a federal appeals court should have required Robins to show he suffered a "concrete" injury. He said that, while that injury could be "intangible," it needed to be something more serious than an incorrect zip code.

"It is difficult to imagine how the dissemination of an incorrect zip code, without more, could work any concrete harm," Alito wrote.

Alito said the justices "take no position" about whether Robins’s case ultimately should be allowed to go forward.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying they would have let the case proceed. Writing for the two, Ginsburg said, “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.”

Spokeo and its allies said the ruling will make it harder for plaintiffs’ lawyers to press class action lawsuits. Spokeo’s Supreme Court lawyer, Andy Pincus, said the ruling clears up a longstanding disagreement among lower courts about suits that allege only a technical violation of a federal statute.

"Today’s decision makes clear that those class actions are not permissible," Pincus said.

Robins’s lawyer, Jay Edelson, said the "vast majority" of pending lawsuits will be allowed to continue. He said the ruling was "actually pretty good for consumers and privacy advocates" by making clear that plaintiffs don’t have to show tangible harm.

The case is Spokeo v. Robins, 13-1339.

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