All posts by John Wester

Fourth Circuit Uses Spokeo to Spike $11.7 Million Class Action Judgment

View John Wester's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comStanding to sue, a venerable piece of American jurisprudence for sure, continues to draw attention in recent class action cases, including in the Fourth Circuit. In its second decision this year evaluating last term’s Supreme Court decision, Spokeo v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit found insufficient “an informational injury” the lead plaintiff advanced under the Fair Credit Reporting Act—the same statute under review in Spokeo.  Dreher v. Experian Information Solutions, Inc., 856 F. 3d 337 (4th Cir. May 11, 2017). See also Beck v. McDonald, 848 F. 3d. 262 (4th Cir. 2017) (affirming the dismissal of a class action lawsuit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction based on the plaintiffs’ failure to establish a non-speculative, imminent injury-in-fact under the federal Privacy Act for purposes of Article III standing).

Dreher presented a high-stakes controversy—the trial court had certified a class of 69,000 members and had awarded $11,700,000 in damages. The lead plaintiff, pursuing a security clearance for government employment, had tried to expunge an inaccurate credit card debt in a credit report an Experian affiliate maintained on him.  The affiliate listing his bad debt in error went into receivership but continued to list Dreher’s debt.  Some 15 months elapsed between Dreher’s starting efforts and the deletion of the inaccurate credit information from his report, but this delay did not affect Dreher’s security clearance.  The government granted his clearance in eight days.

Dreher persuaded the trial court that Experian and its affiliate had willfully violated the FCRA by failing to provide “the sources” of Dreher’s credit report. “When a consumer reporting agency fails to disclose those sources, it violates [the statutory] right, thus creating a sufficient injury-in-fact for constitutional standing.” Dreher, 71 F. Supp. 3d 572, 574 (E. D. Va. 2014). Notably for the Fourth Circuit, the trial court—declining to analyze whether Dreher’s injury was specific and concrete—ruled that “any violation of the statute sufficed to create an Article III injury-in-fact.” 856 F. 3d at 342 (emphasis in original).

Reminding that the burden to establish all of the Spokeo elements of standing falls on the plaintiff, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Dreher “stumbles on the first of the[ ] requirements: injury in fact.” Id. at 343. The court then provided details that will be instructive for future analyses of class action standing:

To establish injury in fact, “a plaintiff must show that he or she suffered ‘an invasion of a legally protected interest’ that is ‘concrete and particularized.’” Spokeo, 136 S. Ct. at 1548 … The Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s decision because that court “failed to fully appreciate the distinction between concreteness and particularization.” Spokeo, 136 S. Ct. at 1550.  The Court found that in analyzing the “particular and concrete” aspect of the standing requirement, the Ninth Circuit “elided” the “independent requirement” of concreteness.  Id. at 1548. … A concrete injury is “de facto,” meaning that “it must actually exist” and is “real, and not abstract.” Id. at 343, 344.

Acknowledging that an intangible injury can be concrete, the Fourth Circuit specified that one cannot “allege a bare procedural violation, divorced from any concrete harm, and satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement.” 856 F. 3d at 344 (quoting Spokeo, 136 S.Ct. at 1548).

Applying these principles, the Fourth Circuit unpacked Dreher’s claim that he suffered a “cognizable informational injury” because Experian, a consumer reporting agency, denied him clear and accurate disclosure of the source of the entity reporting his credit. Dreher failed to show how his having the right information – accurate identification of the entity with whom he was corresponding—“would have made any difference at all in the ‘fairness or accuracy’ of his credit report, or that it would have made the credit resolution process more efficient.” Id. at 346.  Granted there is “value in knowing who it is you’re dealing with,” id., but a consumer’s speaking to an employee without knowing the employee works for a different affiliate of Experian did not create a “real world harm” Congress was seeking to prevent through the FCRA. Dreher did not show a concrete and adverse effect from the violation of the statute, a clear requirement for standing under Spokeo.

Looking at the national scene, we see a real increase in the spokes on the Spokeo wheel. Dreher joins the Seventh and Eight Circuits which have ruled, three times since Spokeo, that procedural, technical violations of statutory rights will not sustain Article III standing. In contrast, rulings by three other circuits, the Third, Ninth, and Eleventh, all this year, evaluating violations of the FCRA, Telephone Consumer Protection Act, Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, and Video Privacy Protection Act, have upheld Article III standing based on technical violations of the statutes.

With six circuits now reporting, when the Supreme Court will return to this field looms as a more urgent question.

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How Will Justice Gorsuch Rule in Class Actions? A Look at Shook and Judicial Restraint

View John Wester's Complete Bio at robinsonbradshaw.comThe nomination of Tenth Circuit Judge Neil M. Gorsuch for the Supreme Court has jurists and reporters forecasting how, if confirmed, he will rule in cases raising “hot” Constitutional issues. The “hot” question for those of us who litigate class actions is how Justice Gorsuch would engage the next landmark class action, especially since he would replace Justice Antonin Scalia on the Court, author of two of the most significant class action opinions in recent years, Comcast Corp. v. Behrend and Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes.

We will be examining some of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions in an attempt to answer this question, beginning with the 2008 opinion he wrote for a unanimous panel of the Tenth Circuit, denying class certification, in Shook v. Board of County Commissioners, 543 F. 3d 557. The linchpin of the outcome in Shook was adherence to the abuse of discretion standard of review. Indeed, twice in his opinion, Judge Gorsuch observes that, were the court evaluating whether to certify the class in the first instance, it may well have allowed a class action to proceed. For example, he observed:

In this case, we believe the district court’s decision fell within the boundaries set out by Rule 23(b)(2), governing case law, and the facts as alleged. While we very well may have made a different decision had the issue been presented to us as an initial matter, and while other district courts perhaps could have chosen, or could choose, to certify similar classes, we cannot say the district court’s assessment was beyond the pale.

What comes through as a lodestar for Judge Gorsuch’s reasoning is his vigilance for honoring the rubric of Rule 23, separate from a merits analysis. Shook is a suit alleging violations of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The 2008 opinion marked a return trip to the Tenth Circuit for the parties. In the first ruling denying class relief, the district court had “conflated” an analysis of the merits of the relief available to the plaintiffs with threshold class certification requirements of Rule 23. Judge Gorsuch was specific in describing this error: “the court focused entirely on the PLRA, reasoning that the relief plaintiffs sought was beyond its jurisdictional competence after the passage of the PLRA and that class certification is properly denied when the court lacks the authority to order the prospective remedy requested.” On remand, the district court repeated the outcome on class certification, denying it again, but, as Judge Gorsuch described the second round: “[the district court] did so this time with reference to Rule 23’s strictures. We find that the district court’s analysis of the Rule 23 framework is free of the legal errors we identified in its first effort.”

Judge Gorsuch’s opinion in Shook reflects careful scholarship—drawing support from leading Supreme Court class action precedent, from decisions by five other circuit courts, and from five law review articles—all evaluating detailed features of Rule 23—to explain why the present case, under an abuse of discretion standard, should remain in the “certification denied” column: “It is precisely these features that distinguish our case from the many and diverse civil rights cases whose certifications we have upheld and will continue to uphold.” His approach in Shook fits the overall reputation for scholarship, judicial restraint, and “rules-following” that Judge Gorsuch has earned during his judicial service.

Taking into account this reputation and his reasoning in Shook, those who labor in class action cases might wonder how far will Justice Gorsuch’s deference to trial court discretion run when the next Wal-Mart-themed case reaches the Supreme Court. Recognizing that the record for each case is distinctive, the trial court ruling in Wal-Mart stood on a significant volume of evidence—statistical and anecdotal—pointing to gender discrimination. As Justice Ginsburg observed in dissent, focusing on the commonality requirement:

The District Court’s identification of a common question, whether Wal-Mart’s pay and promotions policies gave rise to unlawful discrimination, was hardly infirm. The practice of delegating to supervisors large discretion to make personnel decisions, uncontrolled by formal standards, has long been known to have the potential to produce disparate effects. Managers, like all humankind, may be prey to biases of which they are unaware. The risk of discrimination is heightened when those managers are predominantly of one sex, and are steeped in a corporate culture that perpetuates gender stereotypes.

Would Judge Gorsuch’s adherence to abuse of discretion standard of review and his recognition that trial judges operate within a range of acceptable determinations lead to his siding with Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting view? Or, was Judge Gorsuch’s application of the abuse of discretion standard in Shook influenced by its context, an appeal arising from the district court’s denial of certification? Perhaps we’ll learn the answer with the next Supreme Court class action that pits judicial restraint against an inclination toward denial of certification.

We will continue our analysis of Judge Gorsuch’s class action opinions in future posts.

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