Potential Supreme Court Split Over Motorist Privacy Law Exception in Class-Action Solicitations

A group of South Carolina residents urged the high court to prohibit attorneys from gathering personal information from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to help find possible plaintiffs for class-action lawsuits. This case before the U.S. Supreme Court — Edward F. Maracich et al. v. Michael Eugene Spears et al., case no.12-25 — involves the application of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), a federal law that generally blocks state motor vehicle bureaus from disclosing drivers’ personal information without express consent of the driver.

However, the federal statute includes a “litigation exception,” which allows disclosures of drivers’ information “in connection with … [or] investigation in anticipation of litigation.” One of the main issues this case presents is whether the attorney’s seeking such personal information was for investigatory purposes or for solicitation purposes. Answering this question will likely determine whether an attorney’s access to such databases falls within the statute’s litigation exception. After last Wednesday’s oral arguments, which were reported on by Law360 (subscription required) and Reuters, it is clear that the Supreme Court Justices are divided on whether the DPPA bars attorneys from accessing driver’s license records in an effort to find potential plaintiffs that may benefit from an imminent class action.

In petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court, the group of South Carolina residents argued that the Fourth Circuit erred in holding that the DPPA permitted plaintiffs’ attorneys to obtain their personal information from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles without their express consent. As Law360 notes, the residents argued that such behavior violated their right to privacy and that such a ruling would open the door to a flood of unwarranted legal solicitations. Notably, as the residents pointed out, the Fourth Circuit’s holding was contrary to the three other circuits that have previously ruled on this issue.

Some of the justices expressed concern that upholding the Fourth Circuit’s ruling would frustrate Congress’ intent in enacting a privacy statute, which was ultimately designed to protect consumers’ most sensitive, personal information.

On the other hand, some of the justices seemed to sympathize with the defendant lawyers, who argued that the federal law was not an “all-purpose privacy statute” and that the scope of the statute was broad enough to cover such activity. After all, as Justice Samuel Alito pointed out,

lawyers are a privileged class and they get it [access to certain information not available to the general public].

Meanwhile, some of the justices appear to be on the fence. For instance, Justice Stephen Breyer agreed “that it’s very hard to figure out what the line is here between the investigation and solicitation.”

After oral arguments, it is not clear whether the Supreme Court will rubber stamp the Fourth Circuit’s outlier decision, especially in light of the three circuits already ruling in favor of a narrow interpretation of the DPPA, fearing that a broad interpretation could raise privacy risks. The Supreme Court is expected to render its decision on this matter by the end of June.

Clearly, considering the heavy costs already being incurred, businesses need to be wary of and oppose tactics designed to increase class-action litigation.


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