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Can't Find a Job? Maybe Spokeo's Misinformation Is to Blame

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on February 10, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

An unemployed job hunter can proceed with his lawsuit against Spokeo claiming violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Ninth Circuit ruled.

For those of you unfamiliar Spokeo: It's a creepily comprehensive data aggregating website with the slogan, "not your grandmother's phonebook." According to Forbes, it's also notoriously inaccurate. Go ahead, check yourself out -- just don't be surprised if you see yourself listed as the only child of a distant cousin whom you haven't seen in years.

In his suit, Thomas Robins claims the website's inaccurate information about him hurt his job prospects. For the courts, his harm raised classic standing issues.

Actual Harm Not Necessary

Spokeo captures (that is, takes a stab at capturing) a person's name, address, marital status, family members, age, wealth level, occupation, house value, ethnicity, and other information that's arguably TMI.

Robins was concerned that certain mistakes in his Spokeo profile -- that he had a graduate degree and was wealthy -- were hurting his job prospects and could also affect his ability to obtain credit, insurance, and the like. For marketing inaccurate consumer reporting information about him, Robins alleged Spokeo willfully violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The district court dismissed the suit, citing a lack of Article III standing because Robins failed to allege an injury in fact of "any actual or imminent harm." The district court balked at his claim of possible future injury.

But the Ninth Circuit panel reversed the lower court's decision and said that Robins did not have to show economic harm to proceed with his suit.

Writing for the court, Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain said the FCRA doesn't require actual harm for willful violations. As a result, Robins' statutory rights were enough to satisfy the requirements for Article III standing.

"Spookeo": Prophetic or Pathetic?

Who knows, maybe Robins is approaching Spokeo's gift for misinformation all wrong.

Maybe a graduate degree and wealth are on the horizon for Robins. Maybe Spokeo is the online manifestation of a crystal ball, a vision quest, or a pipe dream -- compiling a detailed portrait of not who you are, but who you could be (as every mother says, "If you just applied yourself ...").

Notwithstanding the untapped soothsaying potential of Spokeo's misinformation, it should be interesting to see how Robins' claims pan out against the ostensibly omniscient "Spookeo."

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