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Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins: A Possible Alternative Path to Standing

Normally to sue in federal court, a plaintiff must establish standing. There are three requirements for establishing standing: (1) an injury in fact, (2) a causal relationship between the injury and the defendant’s conduct, and (3) the injury would be redressed by a favorable court ruling.

There may be an alternative way to establish standing after the Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments in the case Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins. The case asks the question whether Congress may grant standing to a plaintiff who has suffered no real harm by simply authorizing a right of action for violation of a federal statute. The Ninth Circuit ruled that Congress can confer such standing, a ruling that further divided the circuit courts on the matter and led the Supreme Court to grant review of the case.

In Spokeo, the plaintiff ,Thomas Robins, sued the people finder website, Spokeo, Inc., alleging that the website had shared inaccurate information about him. While there is some debate over whether the misinformation actually caused harm to Robins, he also claimed that Spokeo had violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) by failing to provide him with notices. The Ninth Circuit ruled that Robins did not have to show any particularized harm, as long as he showed the defendant violated a statute that authorized a private right of action.

This decision has concerned many large companies, including tech giants Google and Facebook. They are worried that a Supreme Court decision upholding the ruling could lead to more lawsuits with no real injuries, but where federal laws similar to FCRA were violated. This is a legitimate concern, and a weakened standing requirement could flood courts and lead to businesses settling meritless lawsuits, rather than going through the process of discovery and a trial.

However, a less restrictive standing requirement could be a benefit as well, especially for those concerned about government expansion and overreach. One of the most difficult steps in suing the federal government is finding a plaintiff with a particularized harm necessary to fulfil the standing requirements of the court. This can be seen in the lead up to oral arguments in King v. Burwell and how many questioned the four plaintiffs’ standing to sue, although the justices seemed less concerned about standing during actual arguments.

In short, the Court could decide that Congress can grant standing to sue through legislation. This could result in a flood of lawsuits and lead to needless settlements, but it could also help to keep the government in check. Although to be a proper check on government, Congress would actually have to include provisions that would authorize a private right of action to challenge the legislation.

There are both positives and negatives to the present standing requirements and standing conferred by legislation. Those interested should keep an eye on the Supreme Court when their next term starts in October, when oral arguments for Spokeo will take place.