Even in the age of social media and internet searches, in which our public and private lives are increasingly (and often voluntarily) blurred, there is still something jarring about learning that your identity has been misrepresented or misconstrued. For Thomas Robins, that moment came when Spokeo, Inc., a “people search engine,” assembled an online profile of him that contained an array of incorrect information, including inaccurate statements of his age, family status, wealth, and education. Robins responded by filing a class action complaint against Spokeo in federal district court, alleging that Spokeo’s willful failure to check the accuracy of his personal information entitled him to statutory damages under the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 (FCRA).
Federal district court would seem a wholly appropriate forum to assert a violation of a Congressionally created right. But the Robins lawsuit instead provoked protests from the court system itself that the plaintiffs had misunderstood its identity. For decades, the federal courts have declared to Congress and the public that they have a “unique mission” and represent “a distinctive judicial forum of limited jurisdiction.” Not every case is appropriate for federal adjudication, and the courts have made clear that they can—and will—restrict their own dockets as much as possible in order to protect their institutional character and values. The federal courts have accordingly relied on a variety of jurisdictional and justiciability doctrines to help them limit their dockets, even in the face of federal legislation creating new rights and causes of action.
One such doctrine is standing. Standing protects the courts from hearing and deciding issues when there is no real dispute that the courts can address, or if one or more parties lacks a real stake in the outcome. To establish standing to sue, a plaintiff in federal court must demonstrate as an “irreducible constitutional minimum” that: (1) he or she suffered an “injury in fact,” (2) that was fairly traceable to the defendant’s alleged conduct, and (3) that can be redressed by the plaintiff’s requested relief. It was the first requirement, of “injury in fact,” that tripped up Robins in his suit against Spokeo.
The district court originally dismissed the case for lack of standing, finding that while the FCRA conferred a private right of action against reporting agencies like Spokeo that failed to comply with the Act’s statutory requirements, Robins himself had not suffered an “injury in fact.” In particular, Robins could not point to any concrete harm he had suffered as a result of the incorrect reporting. The Ninth Circuit reversed, concluding that the FCRA had conferred a right upon Robins to be free from false reporting, and that Robins had sufficiently alleged that Spokeo had violated his individual statutory rights by misreporting information. But on May 16, the Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit’s opinion by a 6-2 vote, and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Writing for the majority, Justice Alito concluded that the Ninth Circuit had incompletely analyzed the “injury in fact” requirement. Injury in fact, Alito explained, requires (among other things) that the alleged injury be “concrete and particularized.” While the Court of Appeals had addressed the particularization prong—finding that Robins’s alleged injury was a violation of his statutory rights and borne by him individually—it had not explicitly determined that the alleged injury was also concrete. This omission was fatal: “We have made it clear time and time again,” Alito wrote, “that an injury in fact must be both concrete and particularized.” A concrete injury need not be tangible, but it must cause real harm. “An example that comes readily to mind,” Justice Alito wrote, “is an incorrect zip code. It is difficult to imagine how the dissemination of an incorrect zip code, without more, could work any concrete harm.” Without a finding that Spokeo’s reported inaccuracies caused Robins real, concrete harm, his case could not move forward.
As a matter of doctrine, Spokeo would seem to break little new ground. Limits on standing in federal court have long been justified on constitutional grounds—the text of Article III and fundamental separation of powers principles limit the federal courts’ jurisdiction to “actual cases and controversies”—and the Court certainly returned to that well time and again in this most recent opinion.
But observers would be remiss to simply view Spokeo as a pedestrian application of neutral constitutional principles. Nestled within the Court’s analysis is a glimpse into how significantly standing (like other justiciability doctrines) is influenced by the federal courts’ notion of self. The Robins complaint posed a threat to the court’s self-described “distinctive” nature. Robins sought redress for an injury that did not appear to be tied to any specific harm. Far from being able to exercise their special expertise and time-honored role, the federal courts would be thrust into resolving a dispute with no tangible consequences. Just as Robins alleged that Spokeo tried to make him something he was not, so too the Supreme Court must have felt that Robins was trying to make the federal courts something they were not. And so Robins’s profile was deemed acceptably incorrect so that the federal courts’ own profile would not be.