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Supreme Court Confirms Availability of Statutory Damages for “Intangible” Harm

Many forms of illegal corporate behavior cause harm to individuals in ways that cannot be directly measured in dollars and cents. Annoying junk faxes, nuisance phone calls from telemarketers or harassing calls from debt collectors, intrusive background checks, frustratingly inaccurate credit reports—the list goes on and on. While there is no doubt that victims of this behavior suffer harm, in many cases it is not immediately clear how to put a specific price tag on their injuries. For this reason, both Congress and the various state legislatures often pass consumer protection statutes that provide for “statutory damages,” meaning a fixed amount for victims of illegal conduct. Examples on the federal level include the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, and many more.

Last week the Supreme Court issued its decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339 (May 16, 2016), a decision that affirms a consumer’s right to bring suit for “intangible” harms. The Spokeo case involved violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”) by a company that provided an inaccurate and misleading background check on an individual. Lawyers for the corporate defendant asked the Supreme Court to rule that individuals harmed by illegal conduct could not sue for damages unless they could prove specific “tangible” losses in terms of money or property.  They based this argument on previous court decisions holding that a person could sue only when he or she had suffered a “concrete” injury. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, confirming that “intangible injuries can nevertheless be concrete.” By rejecting a requirement for specific losses of money or property and reaffirming that individuals can bring suit for intangible injuries, the Court has safeguarded a consumer’s right to sue for statutory damages.

A copy of the Spokeo opinion is available here.