In the wake of the Supreme Court’s holding in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins,136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), federal courts routinely struggle to determine when a statutory violation will rise to the level of a concrete harm that will confer standing to bring suit. For instance, the District Court for the Middle District of Florida found that a procedural violation of the FCRA—without any attendant harm—was a concrete injury enabling plaintiffs’ lawsuit to proceed. See Hargrett v. Amazon.com DEDC LLC, 235 F. Supp. 3d 1320 (M.D. Fla. 2017) (click here for additional analysis). On the other hand, when the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia evaluated a violation of the same statutory provision at issue in Hargrett, the court reached an entirely different conclusion and required plaintiffs to show an injury independent of the statutory violation. See Thomas v. FTS USA, LLC, 193 F. Supp. 3d 623, 626 (E.D. Va. 2016). Although the conflicting rulings are too numerous list, the D.C. Circuit’s most recent decision applying Spokeo is instructive.
In Owner-Operator Indep. Drivers Ass’n, Inc. v. United States Dep’t of Transportation, 879 F.3d 339 (D.C. Cir. 2018), a group of truck drivers alleged they were injured by the DOT’s failure to maintain the accuracy of the Motor Carrier Management Information System. This database contained driver safety information and was frequently used by prospective employers during pre-employment background checks. By statute, DOT was obligated to ensure the accuracy of the information in the database. The truck drivers requested DOT remove inaccurate information (safety violations that were dismissed by state courts) from the database. When the agency refused, the truck drivers filed suit claiming that DOT failed to satisfy its statutory obligations to accurately maintain the database. The trial court granted the government’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that the truck drivers’ asserted injury was, by itself, insufficiently concrete to confer Article III standing.
The D.C. Circuit agreed, holding that the mere existence of inaccurate information in the DOT database did not cause the truck drivers any type of injury. The court thoroughly analyzed Spokeo, noting that Congress has the power to elevate the status of legally cognizable injuries that were previously inadequate at law. That does not mean, however, that a plaintiff seeking to vindicate a statutorily created right will automatically satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement. It is true that Congress gave the truck drivers a statutory right to have DOT accurately maintain their safety records. Nevertheless, the mere presence of inaccurate data in a government database did not cause the drivers any type of injury. The court noted that two of the drivers whose inaccurate information was shared with prospective employers during pre-employment screenings suffered a concrete injury independent of the DOT’s failure discharge its statutory duties. Therefore, unlike the other commercial drivers whose information was not disseminated, they sustained an injury as a direct result of the statutory violation.
The D.C. Circuit’s opinion in this case is important because it directly addressed language in Spokeo indicating that are some instances where violations of a procedural right would be a sufficiently concrete injury that no “additional harm” is required. As the D.C. Circuit explained, there are only two lines of cases that fall into this category. That is, cases where the statutory violation at issue resulted in either disclosure of potentially harmful information or from the withholding of public information. In those cases, “no additional harm” was required because the plaintiff sustained a de facto injury resulting from the procedural violation itself. For example, in cases where a plaintiff sues for access to public information, an agency’s violation of that statutory right is sufficient to confer standing because the plaintiff is entitled to that information. The deprivation of that information is a violation of a procedural right created by Congress that does not require an independent showing of how the defendant’s conduct injured the plaintiff.
The take away is that courts reach varying results when it comes to interpreting whether a statutory violation will confer standing. The D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Owner-Operator Indep. Drivers Ass’n, Inc. is most in line with the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Spokeo and will likely become the prevailing view. To be on the safe side, plaintiffs should carefully plead their causes of action and detail how a statutory violation directly injured each plaintiff. Simply stating that a defendant did not comply with a statutory obligation will not likely pass muster much longer.