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Spokeo, Inc. Petitioner v. Thomas Robins

This Supreme Court of the United State case was argued on November 2, 2015 and decided on May 16, 2016

People Search Engine website treated like a Consumer Reporting Agency – Subject to FCRA regulations.

Supreme Court Ruled on May 16, 2016 that consumers must prove harm in class actions.

May 2016

Spokeo, Inc. Petitioner


Thomas Robins

This Supreme Court of the United States case was argued on November 2, 2015 and decided on May 16, 2016. 

Thomas Robins accused Spokeo, Inc., a people search engine, of violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) by publishing false information about him. He alleged that his Spokeo profile includes a picture of his image that is not in fact him and incorrectly reports that he is in his 50’s, married, employed in a professional or technical field and has children. The Spokeo profile also states that he has a graduate degree and that his wealth level is in the top 10%. The people search engine displayed the erroneous information, Robins asserts, when he was out of work and actively seeking employment.

Robins claimed that potential employers would not consider him for employment because he was overqualified, would expect a higher salary and that he was not a good candidate to relocate because of this marital/family status. When Robins learned of these inaccuracies, he filed a complaint alleging the company willfully failed to comply with the FCRA’s requirements.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 requires consumer reporting agencies to “follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of consumer reports and imposes liability on any person who willfully fails to comply with any requirement with respect to any individual.” According to the court documentation, “Spokeo is alleged to qualify as a “consumer reporting agency. (For purposes of this opinion, we assume that Spokeo is a consumer reporting agency.)” Spokeo operates a wide spectrum of databases and gathers information about individuals through a computerized search that allows users to submit inquiries online.

The District Court dismissed Robins complaint for lack of standing, but a panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision on the basis that Robins had adequately alleged injury in fact, a requirement for standing under Article III. The injury-in-fact requirement was the crux of the debate because the plaintiff must show that the alleged injury is both “concrete and particularized.”

The Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit order that revived Robins’ class action suit. Even though the Supreme Court acknowledged the Ninth Circuit met the “particularized” requirement by demonstrating the injury affected “the plaintiff in a personal or individual way, they still ruled that the “concreteness” requirement was not met because they failed to show that the injury actually existed. The court found that Robins had not “properly pled” an injury-in-fact as required by Article III and that consumers must prove harm in class actions.

It is interesting to note that Justice Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor both dissented the decision. Justice Ginsburg reiterated Robins statement that “because of the misinformation, he encountered imminent and ongoing acutal harm to his employment prospects.” Ginsburg affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s judgement: Spokeo’s misinformation” causes actual harm to his employment prospects.”

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