By Kelsey O’Neal
Admit it. You’ve Googled yourself at least once; though you probably did not do it just to stroke your ego. It’s important to know if your personal information is on the Internet so that you can control your message and personal brand. Social media, from LinkedIn to Facebook to Twitter, can truly define an individual. Your Facebook page or LinkedIn profile can offer an accurate or inaccurate impression of you. For one man, Thomas Robins, his online presence did not accurately reflect him. When Robins checked his online footprint on Spokeo.com, he discovered that the website had promulgated false information about him. The search engine stated that Robins, a single man, was married; it claimed he had received a degree that he had not gained; and it claimed he was worth more than his actual net worth. Robins believes that the false information made his job search more difficult.
Robins filed a class action suit against Spokeo.com under the 1970 Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) alleging that the online database had published false personal information about him. Even though Spokeo.com published more positive information about him, Robins claims that the website caused him actual harm. The FCRA provides statutory damages from $100 – $1000, even if the plaintiff cannot show actual harm. As a general rule courts will only hear a case if the plaintiff alleges actual harm. In other words, a court must first ensure that the plaintiff has standing to allege an Article III injury-in-fact. But, The FCRA gives plaintiffs a cause of action without a showing actual harm. In choosing to hear Spokeo, the Supreme Court will decide if statutory damages provisions give plaintiffs Article III standing. In a reconsideration of the case, the District Court for the Central District of California ruled that Robins could not show that the false information was actually harmful, and so it dismissed his case. Robins appealed. The Ninth Circuit, siding with the Sixth Circuit in its decision in Beaudry v. TeleCheck Services, Inc and with the support of President Obama’s Administration, held that Robins did have standing to sue because Congress’ creation of a private cause of action created a statutory right, and the violation of a statutory right is a sufficient injury-in-fact to create standing. Spokeo.com appealed, and on April 27th, 2015, the Supreme Court decided that it should hear Robins’ case in its next session.
Spokeo.com is not pleased that the Supreme Court decided to hear Robins’ case, and it is even more displeased with the attitude of the Ninth Circuit. Spokeo.com has some distinguished allies. Google, eBay, Facebook, and Yahoo! filed a joint amicus brief with the Supreme Court requesting that it consider the vast quantities of information on their respective sites. The companies argue that following the Ninth Circuit and granting Robins standing will open them up to a vast amount of liability. They mention several pending cases like In re Facebook Privacy Litigation, Gaos v. Google, Inc., and In re Hulu Privacy Litigation. How the Supreme Court decides the issue of standing and statutory damages will have a huge effect on every company that publishes information online and will likely change the outcome of the cases mentioned above. Moreover, as actual damages become more difficult to prove in the digital age, it might be time for a change in traditional standing rules.