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On May 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated a district court’s approval of a class action settlement agreement in an FCRA action after determining that the plaintiff lacked Article III standing in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins. According to the opinion, after the plaintiff applied for employment with the defendant, the defendant made a conditional offer of employment to the plaintiff and also asked her to sign an authorization for release of information so that it could conduct a background investigation of the plaintiff, including a criminal background search. The plaintiff contended that, after the defendant reviewed the background screening report, it withdrew the conditional offer of employment and did not provide her an opportunity before the offer was withdrawn to correct or explain the results in the report. A follow-up letter, which included a copy of the report and a description of her rights under the FCRA, was sent to the plaintiff stating that if she planned to dispute the information she had to do so within seven days from receipt of the letter. The plaintiff commenced the action in February 2016, alleging the defendant violated the FCRA by: (i) “taking adverse employment action based on a consumer report without first providing the report to the applicant”; (ii) “obtaining a consumer report without providing a disclosure form that complied with the FCRA”; and (iii) “exceeding the scope of the authorization by obtaining more information than the disclosed in the authorization.” In May 2016, the parties reached a tentative settlement agreement, but four days later the Supreme Court issued its decision in Spokeo, which requires plaintiffs to show that they have suffered a concrete injury in fact that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and not just allege a statutory violation. Following Spokeo, the defendant moved to dismiss for lack of standing, but the district court approved the settlement.
On appeal, the 8th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff lacked Article III standing to bring her FCRA claims, determining, among other things, that “the right to pre-action explanation to the employer is not unambiguously stated in the text of the statute,” and that “[n]either the text of the FCRA nor the legislative history provide support for [plaintiff’s] claim that she has a right under the FCRA to not only receive a copy of her consumer report, but also discuss directly with the employer accurate but negative information within the report prior to the employer taking adverse action.” The plaintiff “may have demonstrated an injury in law, but not an injury in fact,” the appellate court wrote. With respect to the plaintiff’s other two claims, the appellate court noted that she failed to show any claim of harm—tangible or intangible. Because Schumacher lacked standing to assert any of her claims, the appellate court vacated the district court’s order and remanded the case with instructions to return the case to the state court.
On November 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed its earlier determination that class members had standing to sue a national bank for allegedly violating New York’s mortgage-satisfaction-recording statutes, which require lenders to record borrowers’ repayments within 30 days. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the plaintiffs filed a class action suit alleging the bank’s recordation delay harmed their financial reputations, impaired their credit, and limited their borrowing capacity. While the bank did not dispute that the discharge was untimely filed, it argued that class members lacked Article III standing because they did not suffer actual damages and failed to plead a concrete harm under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo Inc. v. Robins. At the time, the majority determined, among other things, that “state legislatures may create legally protected interests whose violation supports Article III standing, subject to certain federal limitations.” The alleged state law violations in this matter, the majority wrote, constituted “a concrete and particularized harm to the plaintiffs in the form of both reputational injury and limitations in borrowing capacity” during the recordation delay period. The majority further concluded that the bank’s alleged failure to report the plaintiffs’ mortgage discharge “posed a real risk of material harm” because the public record reflected an outstanding debt of over $50,000, which could “reasonably be inferred to have substantially restricted” the plaintiffs’ borrowing capacity.
In withdrawing its earlier opinion, the 2nd Circuit found that the Supreme Court’s June decision in TransUnion v. Ramirez (which clarified what constitutes a concrete injury for the purposes of Article III standing in order to recover statutory damages, and was covered by InfoBytes here) “bears directly on our analysis.” The parties filed supplemental briefs addressing the potential impacts of the TransUnion ruling on the 2nd Circuit’s previous decision. The bank argued that while “New York State Legislature may have implicitly recognized that delayed recording can create [certain] harms,” the plaintiffs cannot allege that they suffered these harms. Class members challenged that “the harms that the Legislature aimed to preclude need not have come to fruition for a plaintiff to have suffered a material risk of real harm sufficient to seek the statutory remedy afforded by the Legislature.” Citing the Supreme Court’s conclusion of “no concrete harm; no standing,” the appellate court concluded, among other things, that class members failed to allege that delayed recording caused a cloud on the property’s title, forced them to pay duplicate filing fees, or resulted in reputational harm. Moreover, while publishing false information can be actionable, the appellate court pointed out that the class “may have suffered a nebulous risk of future harm during the period of delayed recordation—i.e., a risk that someone (a creditor, in all likelihood) might access the record and act upon it—but that risk, which was not alleged to have materialized, cannot not form the basis of Article III standing.” The appellate court further stated that in any event class members may recover a statutory penalty in state court for reporting the bank’s delay in recording the mortgage satisfaction.
On August 17, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed a district court’s decision in granting a plaintiff summary judgment, finding that the debt collector (defendant) violated the FDCPA by allegedly attempting to collect a debt despite receiving written notice disputing the debt, and by allegedly calling the defendant despite receiving a “cease-and-desist letter.” According to the opinion, the plaintiff allegedly incurred a medical debt that was placed with the defendant for collection, in which the defendant sent a letter on April 25 to the plaintiff seeking payment of the debt. On April 30, the defendant called the plaintiff and left a voice message. Subsequently, the defendant received a letter from the plaintiff on May 7 disputing the debt and demanding that the defendant cease calling, and that future correspondence should be in writing. However, the letter was not documented into the defendant’s system until May 10; meanwhile, on May 8, the defendant placed another call to the plaintiff, leaving another voice message. The plaintiff filed suit, alleging the defendant violated Section 1692g(b) of the FDCPA “by attempting to collect the debt despite receiving her written notice disputing the debt” and Section 1692g(c) of the FDCPA “by continuing to call her despite receiving her cease-and-desist letter.” The district court ruled that the plaintiff violated the FDCPA and the defendant’s bona fide error defense did not excuse the FDCPA violations, emphasizing that “the bona fide-error defense is an affirmative one, requiring that [the defendant] prove the prongs of the defense, not that [the plaintiff] disprove them.”
On appeal, the 10th Circuit agreed with the district court and cited TransUnion v. Ramirez, where the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the Spokeo standing requirements, including that the tort of intrusion upon seclusion is recognized as an intangible harm providing a basis for a lawsuit in American courts (covered by InfoBytes here). According to the opinion, in consideration of the FCRA, “the TransUnion Court noted that a company’s maintaining incorrect information in its database, absent dissemination to a third party, failed to create a harm bearing a close relationship to the common-law tort of defamation.” Further, “[w]ithout the ‘necessary’ defamation component that the tortious words were published, this harm differed in kind.” The appellate court pointed out that “this analysis doesn’t control the case at question because the plaintiff alleged the necessary components for a common-law intrusion-upon-seclusion tort.” The appellate court further affirmed that the phone call that was placed after the cease-and-desist letter was received is considered enough to confer standing for the plaintiff to sue. The 10th Circuit held, “[t]hough a single phone call may not intrude to the degree required at common law, that phone call poses the same kind of harm recognized at common law—an unwanted intrusion into a plaintiff’s peace and quiet.”
On May 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a consumer’s alleged “confusion and anxiety” does not constitute a concrete and particularized injury under the FDCPA. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s debt collector, an attorney’s office, violated the FDCPA when it communicated with him, on behalf of a bank, by sending a letter stating the plaintiff’s mortgage loan was sent to foreclosure. The letter also informed the plaintiff that the bank “might have already sent a letter about possible alternatives,” further explaining how the plaintiff could contact the bank “to attempt to be reviewed for possible alternatives to foreclosure.” The plaintiff also alleged that the attorney’s office “sent a form of this letter to tens of thousands of homeowners and that it did so without having any attorney provide a meaningful review of the homeowners’ foreclosure files, so the communications deceptively implied they were from an attorney.” The plaintiff alleged the letter confused him because he was unsure if it was from an attorney, and that, moreover, the letter “raised [his] anxiety” by suggesting “that an attorney may have conducted an independent investigation and substantive legal review of the circumstances of his account, such that his prospects for avoiding foreclosure were diminished.”
The 6th Circuit found the plaintiff’s allegations to “come up short” in regard to proving that the statutory violations caused him individualized concrete harm. In addition, the appellate court said that “confusion doesn’t have a close relationship to a harm that has traditionally been regarded as providing a basis for a lawsuit.”
On May 26, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that receiving a single unsolicited text message is enough to establish standing under the TCPA. The plaintiff alleged he received an unsolicited text message on his cell phone from the defendant after he had previously revoked consent and reached a settlement with the defendant to resolve a dispute over two other unsolicited text messages. The plaintiff filed a putative class action alleging that the defendant negligently, willfully, and/or knowingly sent text messages using an automatic telephone dialing system without first receiving consent, and that the unsolicited message was “a nuisance and invasion of privacy.” The district court dismissed the suit for lack of standing, ruling that a “single unwelcome text message will not always involve an intrusion into the privacy of the home in the same way that a voice call to a residential line necessarily does.”
On appeal, the 5th Circuit disagreed, concluding that the nuisance arising from the single text message was a sufficiently concrete injury and enough to establish standing. “In enacting the TCPA, Congress found that ‘unrestricted telemarketing can be an intrusive invasion of privacy’ and a ‘nuisance,’” the appellate court wrote, commenting that the TCPA “cannot be read to regulate unsolicited telemarketing only when it affects the home.” In addition, the appellate court found that the plaintiff separately alleged personal injuries that separated him from the public at large by arguing that the “aggravating and annoying” robodialed text message “interfered with [his] rights and interests in his cellular telephone.” In reversing the district court’s ruling, the 5th Circuit disregarded precedent set by the 11th Circuit in Salcedo v. Hanna (covered by InfoBytes here). Calling the other appellate court’s decision “mistaken,” the 5th Circuit contended the other appellate court took too narrow a view of the theory of harm by concluding that there must be some actual damage before an action can be maintained. Moreover, the 5th Circuit stated the 11th Circuit misunderstood the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, writing “Salcedo’s focus on the substantiality of an alleged harm threatens to make this already difficult area of law even more unmanageable. We therefore reject it.”
On May 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of a proposed TCPA class action suit for lack of standing, finding that the named plaintiff did not claim anything other than a “bare procedural harm that resulted in no harm.” According to the opinion, the plaintiff—who worked as an investigator for an attorney who prepared TCPA lawsuits—received a prerecorded telemarketing call in 2005 from a marketing company on behalf of the defendant national bank. The plaintiff, using a false name and employer, then placed and recorded more than 20 investigative calls to the marketing company to determine the number and frequency of calls it made. He then provided the recordings to the bank and declined the marketing company’s offer to place him on their Do-Not-Call list. In 2011, the plaintiff sued the bank alleging a single count violation of the TCPA but did not allege that he suffered any annoyance or nuisance from the marketing company’s call. The bank moved for summary judgment, arguing that: (i) the plaintiff lacked Article III standing to sue; (ii) “the call was exempt from the TCPA under FCC rules because the parties had an established business relationship” because the plaintiff was a customer of the bank; and (iii) the recorded message’s content did not violate the TCPA. The district court agreed with the bank and granted summary judgment on all three grounds.
On appeal, the Third Circuit disagreed with the plaintiff’s assertion that all he had to do was allege a statutory violation in order to have standing to sue, declining “to adopt such an absolute rule of standing with respect to the TCPA.” Because “the TCPA is intended to prevent harm stemming from nuisance, invasions of privacy, and other such injuries,” the plaintiff must allege at least one of those injuries to show concrete harm necessary to demonstrate an injury-in-fact and establish standing to sue, the appellate court wrote.
On October 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, in a 7-3 en banc decision, vacated a $6.3 million Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) class action settlement, concluding the plaintiffs lacked standing because they did not allege any concrete harm. According to the opinion, the named plaintiff filed a FACTA class action against a chocolate retailer, alleging that the retailer printed too many credit card digits on receipts over several years. The complaint only pursued statutory damages and explicitly stated it did “not intend to request any recovery for personal injury.” The parties agreed to settle the litigation for $6.3 million prior to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins (holding that a plaintiff must allege a concrete injury, not just a statutory violation, to establish standing). After Spokeo, the district court approved the class action, and class objectors appealed, with one objector arguing that the district court lacked jurisdiction to approve the settlement because the named plaintiff did not allege an injury in fact. On appeal, the 11th Circuit issued multiple opinions, with the first two affirming the settlement approval. The full panel ordered a rehearing en banc, vacating the last opinion.
The en banc panel vacated the district court order approving the settlement, concluding that the named plaintiff lacked standing under Spokeo. Specifically, the panel rejected the named plaintiff’s argument that “receipt of a noncompliant receipt itself is a concrete injury,” noting that “nothing in FACTA suggests some kind of intrinsic worth in a compliant receipt.” Moreover, the panel disagreed with the named plaintiff’s distinction that his claim was a “substantive” violation and not just a “procedural” one, reasoning that “no matter what label you hang on a statutory violation, it must be accompanied by a concrete injury.” Because the complaint did not allege a concrete injury, the panel vacated the order.
In dissent, one judge argued that the named plaintiff plausibly alleged concrete harm by establishing that the retailer’s FACTA violation elevated his risk of identity theft. In the second dissent, another judge asserted that both common law and congressional intent support the conclusion that the plaintiff’s complaint constitutes a concrete injury in fact. And lastly, the third dissent argued that the order should not be dismissed outright because the majority made “assumptions about the risks of identity theft without the benefit of a factual record, expert reports, or adversarial testing of the issue in the district court.”
On June 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment in favor of a consumer, concluding that the consumer failed to demonstrate a concrete injury-in-fact traceable to the FDCPA violations she alleged. According to the opinion, the consumer brought the putative class action against the debt collector after the collector sued the consumer to collect an outstanding auto loan debt. The collector allegedly used affidavits in its lawsuit against the consumer that were signed by an agent of the collector, not by an employee as attested. As requested by the debt collector, the action was then dismissed with prejudice. Subsequently, the consumer filed the putative class action against the debt collector and its agent alleging various violations of the FDCPA. The defendants moved to dismiss the action, which the district court denied. Subsequently, the district court granted their motion for summary judgment, concluding that any “any falsehoods in the  affidavits were immaterial—and thus not actionable—because they ‘had no effect on [the consumer]’s ability to respond or to dispute the debt.’”
On appeal, the D.C. Circuit disagreed with the district court, concluding that the consumer lacked standing to sue the defendants altogether. Specifically, the appellate court held that the consumer failed to identify a traceable injury to the “false representations” made in the affidavits, citing to the fact that the consumer “testified unequivocally that she neither took nor failed to take any action because of these statements.” Moreover, citing to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, the appellate court emphasized that “[n]othing in the FDCPA suggests that every violation of the provisions implicated here…create a cognizable injury.” The appellate court vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the case with instructions to dismiss the complaint.
District court: Plaintiffs whose search terms were disclosed to third parties have standing under Spokeo
On June 5, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued an order denying a global search engine’s (defendant) motion to dismiss class action claims, ruling that the plaintiffs’ claims met the standing requirement under Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins. The court determined that the plaintiffs pled a concrete injury by claiming that the defendant violated the Electronic Stored Communications Act (ESCA) and their contractual privacy rights by disclosing their search terms to third party servers without their authorization. The court rejected the defendant’s arguments that (i) the “plaintiffs cannot show the search terms can or will be linked to a searcher’s identity,” and (ii) “anonymized search terms could ‘rarely if ever result in harm or certainly impending harm.’” According to the court, this argument assumes that harm must take the form of “‘individuals’ discovered identities’ being ‘exploit[ed]. . .to their detriment,” which is “[n]ot so.” The court stressed that the ESCA “protects users’ privacy rights against the mere disclosure of their communications,” and that “the statute makes such disclosure actionable regardless whether those communications reveal the user’s identity.” Among other things, the court also noted that Congress has “identified a concrete privacy interest in communications stored with electronic communication service providers—even if those communications cannot be linked to the user.” “Because plaintiffs ‘need not allege any additional harm beyond the one Congress has identified,’ their standing in no way depends on whether the search terms may be used to discover their identities,” the court wrote.
On August 28, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that receiving one unsolicited text message is not enough of a concrete injury to establish standing under the TCPA. According to the opinion, a former client of an attorney received an unsolicited “multimedia text message” from the attorney offering a ten percent discount on services. The client filed a putative class action, alleging the attorney violated the TCPA arguing the text message caused him “‘to waste his time answering or otherwise addressing the message’” leaving his cell phone “‘unavailable for otherwise legitimate pursuits’” and resulted in “‘an invasion of  privacy and right to enjoy the full utility’” of his cell phone. The attorney moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of standing and the district court denied the motion. However, the court allowed the attorney to pursue an interlocutory appeal.
On appeal, the 11th Circuit looked to the Supreme Court decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins— which held that a plaintiff must allege a concrete injury, not just a statutory violation, to establish standing—as well as the legislative history of the TCPA and determined there was “little support” for treating the client’s allegations as a concrete injury. Specifically, the panel noted that the allegations of “a brief, inconsequential annoyance are categorically distinct from those kinds of real but intangible harms” Congress set out to protect. Moreover, the “chirp, buzz, or blink of a cell phone” is annoying, but not a basis for invoking federal court jurisdiction. The panel also acknowledged that Congress, not a federal court, is “well positioned” to assess the new harms of technology. Because the client failed to allege a concrete harm by receiving the unsolicited text message, the panel reversed the district court decision.