SCOTUS: trial lawyers can’t scoop up DMV names to solicit cases

by Walter Olson on June 18, 2013

Yesterday, in the case of Maracich v. Spears, the Supreme Court ruled that the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 (DPPA) prohibits trial lawyers from accessing names and contact information from states’ drivers license databases with the intention of soliciting potential clients for litigation. Under DPPA, the general rule is that states must keep the information in such databases private; there is a “litigation exception” for queries intended to investigate or prepare for legal proceedings, but the Court ruled that soliciting clients was not part of its scope. As I argue in a new post at Cato at Liberty, the dispute brought about a curious reversal in the polarities displayed in the case of Maryland v. King earlier this month: the pro-privacy justices in that case were more likely to be willing to dispense with privacy this time, and vice versa.

The underlying lawsuit (Kevin Russell at SCOTUSBlog and background here, here) also involves a bit of a reversal: class action lawyers are themselves being sued in a class action. The majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy sketches in some of the background:

In the case now before the Court, petitioners are South Carolina residents whose personal information was obtained by respondents from the South Carolina DMV and used without their consent to send solicitation letters asking them to join the lawsuits against the car dealerships. Petitioner Edward Maracich received one of the letters in March 2007. While his personal information had been disclosed to respondents because he was one of many buyers from a particular dealership, Maracich also happened to be the dealership’s director of sales and marketing. Petitioners Martha Weeks and John Tanner received letters from respondents in May 2007. In response to the letter, Tanner called Richard Harpootlian, one of the respondent attorneys listed on the letter. According to Tanner, Harpootlian made an aggressive sales pitch to sign Tanner as a client for the lawsuit without asking about the circumstances of his purchase.

Some of these points may be relevant on remand, because the court will be asked to consider whether the original solicitation letter (marked “SOLICITATION”) had the predominant purpose of investigating the developing lawsuit, or of attracting clients for it. And this leads to the third turnabout. In the second class action, the one over privacy and the lawyers’ use of the DMV database, petitioners are seeking specified statutory damages of $2,500 for each person whose privacy was breached, which could add up to an “astronomical” (as Justice Ginsburg put it in her dissent) sum of hundreds of millions of dollars in all. Indeed, the majority opinion as well as the dissent signaled disquiet at a possible assessment of damages so far out of proportion to any actual harm done — a phenomenon we have seen again and again in statutory class or group damages cases in the past. Some trial lawyers have in the past pooh-poohed, as the griping of sore losers, complaints about mechanical multiplication of statutory damages into huge sums (e.g. FACTA, junk faxes, song piracy, California Labor Code). In this case, such multiplication could pose a threat to the fiscal well-being of some of their own number. (& welcome TortsProf, Legal Ethics Forum, SCOTUSBlog, JOLT Digest (Harvard Journal of Law and Technology) readers)

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Supreme Court Reaffirms Driver Privacy | JOLT Digest
06.23.13 at 8:01 am

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