6th Circuit Aligns With 7th Circuit on Data Breach Standing Issue

John Biglow, MJLST Managing Editor

To bring a suit in any judicial court in the United States, an individual, or group of individuals must satisfy Article III’s standing requirement. As recently clarified by the Supreme Court in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), to meet this requirement, a “plaintiff must have (1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.” Id. at 1547. When cases involving data breaches have entered the Federal Circuit courts, there has been some disagreement as to whether the risk of future harm from data breaches, and the costs spent to prevent this harm, qualify as “injuries in fact,” Article III’s first prong.

Last Spring, I wrote a note concerning Article III standing in data breach litigation in which I highlighted the Federal Circuit split on the issue and argued that the reasoning of the 7th Circuit court in Remijas v. Neiman Marcus Group, LLC, 794 F.3d 688 (7th Cir. 2015) was superior to its sister courts and made for better law. In Remijas, the plaintiffs were a class of individuals whose credit and debit card information had been stolen when Neiman Marcus Group, LLC experienced a data breach. A portion of the class had not yet experienced any fraudulent charges on their accounts and were asserting Article III standing based upon the risk of future harm and the time and money spent mitigating this risk. In holding that these Plaintiffs had satisfied Article III’s injury in fact requirement, the court made a critical inference that when a hacker steals a consumer’s private information, “[p]resumably, the purpose of the hack is, sooner or later, to make fraudulent charges or assume [the] consumers’ identit[y].” Id. at 693.

This inference is in stark contrast to the line of reasoning engaged in by the 3rd Circuit in Reilly v. Ceridian Corp. 664 F.3d 38 (3rd Cir. 2011).  The facts of Reilly were similar to Remijas, except that in Reilly, Ceridian Corp., the company that had experienced the data breach, stated only that their firewall had been breached and that their customers’ information may have been stolen. In my note, mentioned supra, I argued that this difference in facts was not enough to wholly distinguish the two cases and overcome a circuit split, in part due to the Reilly court’s characterization of the risk of future harm. The Reilly court found that the risk of misuse of information was highly attenuated, reasoning that whether the Plaintiffs experience an injury depended on a series of “if’s,” including “if the hacker read, copied, and understood the hacked information, and if the hacker attempts to use the information, and if he does so successfully.” Id. at 43 (emphasis in original).

Often in the law, we are faced with an imperfect or incomplete set of facts. Any time an individual’s intent is an issue in a case, this is a certainty. When faced with these situations, lawyers have long utilized inferences to differentiate between more likely and less likely scenarios for what the missing facts are. In the case of a data breach, it is almost always the case that both parties will have little to no knowledge of the intent, capabilities, or plans of the hacker. However, it seems to me that there is room for reasonable inferences to be made about these facts. When a hacker is sophisticated enough to breach a company’s defenses and access data, it makes sense to assume they are sophisticated enough to utilize that data. Further, because there is risk involved in executing a data breach, because it is illegal, it makes sense to assume that the hacker seeks to gain from this act. Thus, as between the Reilly and Remijas courts’ characterizations of the likelihood of misuse of data, it seemed to me that the better rule is to assume that the hacker is able to utilize the data and plans to do so in the future. Further, if there are facts tending to show that this inference is wrong, it is much more likely at the pleading stage that the Defendant Corporation would be in possession of this information than the Plaintiff(s).

Since Remijas, there have been two data breach cases that have made it to the Federal Circuit courts on the issue of Article III standing. In Lewert v. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Inc., 819 F.3d 963, 965 (7th Cir. 2016), the court unsurprisingly followed the precedent set forth in their recent case, Remijas, in finding that Article III standing was properly alleged. In Galaria v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., a recent 6th Circuit case, the court had to make an Article III ruling without the constraint of an earlier ruling in their Circuit, leaving the court open to choose what rule and reasoning to apply. Galaria v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., No. 15-3386, 2016 WL 4728027, (6th Cir. Sept. 12, 2016). In the case, the Plaintiffs alleged, among other claims, negligence and bailment; these claims were dismissed by the district court for lack of Article III standing. In alleging that they had suffered an injury in fact, the Plaintiffs alleged “a substantial risk of harm, coupled with reasonably incurred mitigation costs.” Id. at 3. In holding that this was sufficient to establish Article III standing at the pleading stage, the Galaria court found the inference made by the Remijas court to be persuasive, stating that “[w]here a data breach targets personal information, a reasonable inference can be drawn that the hackers will use the victims’ data for the fraudulent purposes alleged in Plaintiffs’ complaints.” Moving forward, it will be intriguing to watch how Federal Circuits who have not faced this issue, like the 6th circuit before deciding Galaria, rule on this issue and whether, if the 3rd Circuit keeps its current reasoning, this issue will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court of the United States.

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