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Friday, June 25, 2021

Standing up to standing

SCOTUS held Friday in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez  that most of a class lacked standing to sue over inaccurate information under the Fair Credit Report Act. Justice Kavanaugh wrote for five; Justice Thomas dissented for Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan; and Kagan wrote a shorter dissent for Breyer and Sotomayor. This marks another case (the third, I believe) in which Barrett replacing Ginsburg presumably changed the outcome of the case.

The result is not surprising, given the direction of standing cases, but it is the most explicit the Court has been. The majority makes explicit that "under Article III, an injury in law is not an injury in fact," a violation of a statutory right is not sufficient for standing, and Congress cannot create new private statutory rights that provide a basis to sue unless they are the same or analogous to historically recognized legal rights (physical injury, monetary loss, or recognized intangible harms) as determined by the Court. Purely procedural rights, even for an individual, are not sufficient.

Thus, the 1800+ class members whose false information was disseminated (including the named plaintiff) and included information about being on a list of "specially designated nationals" who might be drug dealers or terrorists had standing to sue. The 6000+ remaining class members, whose reports contained false information but were not disseminated, did not have standing; although the false information in the report violated the statute, it was speculative whether or when the information would be disseminated. The entire class lacked standing to challenge the failure to provide them with accurate information and information on how to correct inaccurate information, because the information was provided but in the wrong manner (split into two incomplete mailings); while violative of the statute, it caused no concrete harm.

According to Thomas' dissent, the problem with today's decision is it fails to distinguish public and private rights. Standing limitations make sense when Congress creates a public right and allows for private enforcement; it makes sense to require the plaintiff to show a direct injury from the public statutory violation. This explains Lujan and Laidlaw, for example. It makes no sense when Congress creates a private right for an individual and allows that individual to sue, as in Spokeo and here; and that should include informational and procedural injuries.

Kagan's separate dissent emphasizes an analytical point I make in class: We must "rewrite" the story that standing is being about the "single idea" of separation of powers and limiting the judicial power when the Court can and does override congressional creation of a legal right and remedy. That is, if Congress decides that some conduct should be unlawful and the target of that unlawful conduct should be able to sue and recover for her injury, it is inconsistent with separation of powers and a limited judicial power for the Court to override that decision and require plaintiffs to show, in addition to the statutory violation, something extra that the Court demands. This decision impairs Congress' Article I power to regulate and stop conduct it deems harmful and aggrandizes the Court's power. This goes to the other aspect of the Fletcher argument--not only is standing a merits concern, but the Court should defer to Congress' choice as to statutory merits.

The case also exposes the fault lines around the role of common sense in standing analysis. According to the majority, the risk of disclosure for the 6000+ was speculative because there was no evidence of disclosure or attempted disclosure, and there was no harm from the inaccurate reports because people may not have opened the envelopes and may not have bothered to correct them. But "tap[ping] into common sense," it should not be speculative that a company in the business of selling credit reports will sell those credit reports or that someone who requests their credit report will open it and seek to correct erroneous information.

Interestingly, the Kagan trio departed from Thomas over whether a congressional cause of action is always sufficient. Thomas says it is, at least for private rights. Kagan says Congress is limiting to recognized rights that are "real" and "concrete" but that the Court should override a statutory right to sue " when but only when Congress could not reasonably have thought that a suit will contribute to compensating or preventing the harm at issue," which practically means never.

One final point: It seems to me that the Thomas and Kagan opinions should have been designated as "concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part." They agreed with the majority as to the result (standing existed) for the 1800+ class members whose information was disclosed.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 25, 2021 at 11:21 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process | Permalink

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