9th Circuit reduces punitive damages in FCRA class action
On February 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reduced punitive damages in a class action against a credit reporting agency (CRA) for allegedly violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by erroneously linking class members to criminals and terrorists with similar names in a database maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). At trial, the jury found that the CRA violated the FCRA by willfully failing to (i) “follow reasonable procedures to assure accuracy of the terrorist alerts”; (ii) “disclose to the class members their entire credit reports by excluding the alerts from the reports”; and (iii) “provide a summary of rights” to class members with each disclosure. Subsequently, the jury awarded $8 million in statutory damages and $52 million in punitive damages to the class.
Upon appeal, the 9th Circuit affirmed the lower court’s determinations that all class members—not just the class representative—must have “standing at the final stage of a money damages suit when class members are to be awarded individual monetary damages.” But the appellate court found that all class members did have standing due to, among other things, the CRA’s “reckless handling of information from OFAC,” which subjected class members to “a real risk of harm,” and because “the violation of a statutory right constituted a concrete injury.” In addition, the appellate court rejected the CRA’s request for judgment as a matter of law or a new trial on the basis that the class had failed to provide sufficient evidence of injuries or to support the damages award. Moreover, the appellate court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the class representative’s claims were typical of the class’s claims, nor in certifying the class or denying the CRA’s motion to decertify the class. The appellate court also agreed with the lower court on statutory damages, but it held that the $52 million punitive damages award was “unconstitutionally excessive.” The appellate court explained that although the CRA’s “conduct was reprehensible, it was not so egregious as to justify a punitive award of more than six times an already substantial compensatory award.” Accordingly, the appellate court vacated the jury’s award of punitive damages and remanded, directing that the punitive damages be reduced to four times the statutory damages award.