Spokeo lawsuit: Jobseekers can sue over false information

9:30 AM, Feb 21, 2014   |    comments
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KUSA - In a landmark decision this week, a federal appeals court ruled that a job seeker can sue Internet people-search website Spokeo, Inc. for publishing false information about him, even without proof of economic injury.

Denver labor law attorney Kim Ryan explained the case on 9NEWS 7am. Spokeo aggregates information about people from White Pages listings, public records, and social network information, according to its website.

It publishes listings, including what appears to be an individual's contact data, marital status, age, occupation, economic health, arrest records, family members, and wealth level, among other information, even including links to photo and video.

One job seeker in California discovered that Spokeo erroneously had listed him as being wealthy and holding an advanced degree. Concerned that the misinformation was harming his chances of getting a job, Thomas Robins filed suit in federal court against Spokeo claiming it willfully violated the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Spokeo argued in court filings the case should be thrown out, claiming it is not a credit reporting agency, and without proof of economic harm Robins had no standing to bring suit.  

The trial court agreed and found in favor of Spokeo.  But Robins appealed the decision to the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and won. He can now take his case back to the trial court to determine if Spokeo willfully violated the law and what remedies might be available, Ryan said.  

If he wins his trial, he could recover monetary damages, cease and desist orders, attorneys' fees, and costs for the lawsuit and appeal. At trial, Spokeo may renew its claim that it is not covered by the federal credit reporting law and therefore is not liable, according to Ryan.  

She said Spokeo also likely would argue that even if the law applies, the company took reasonable actions, and any damages are not the fault of the company. Unless the case settles out of court, Ryan said a lengthy pre-trial battle could still result in a dismissal or verdict for either side.

If it is like most civil federal lawsuits, it either will be dismissed or settled before a trial.  An estimated 98 percent of all cases filed in court never make it all the way to a jury trial, according to recent statistics. If this case does go to a trial, it could be another year or two of pre-trial discovery and court filings before it is heard by a judge or jury, according to Ryan.

Why this case is important to Colorado employers and individuals

Ryan said if companies use Spokeo or similar sites to screen potential job candidates, they may find inaccurate or incomplete information based on bad data, and they could miss out on viable employees.

They also risk discovering protected information companies are prohibited from considering in the hiring process, such as certain health information, arrest records, bankruptcies, and other legally protected information, according to Ryan.

She said this practice could expose companies to discrimination lawsuits under federal and state laws. Employers themselves also may be subjected to mistaken reporting and false information posted about them on such sites, Ryan said, which could hurt their business goodwill and bottom lines.

Although the company lost its appeal in this case, Ryan said that this ruling could help both employers and individuals protect themselves by allowing them to file suit alleging willful violations even if they cannot yet prove any tangible monetary losses

She said that these losses often are not readily apparent at the time a suit is filed but are more clear over the course of the case.

The case is Robins v. Spokeo, Inc.

More information about Kim Ryan: www.KimberlieRyan.com.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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