People For the American Way

Trump Justices Rule that Having Your Right to Fair Credit Reporting Violated Is Not Enough to Let You Recover in Court: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

News and Analysis
Trump Justices Rule that Having Your Right to Fair Credit Reporting Violated Is Not Enough to Let You Recover in Court: Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears

Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties.

In a 5-4 decision that Trump’s three justices made possible – and which even Justice Thomas dissented from – the Supreme Court made it much harder for victims of corporate malfeasance to use class action lawsuits to hold companies accountable when they violate the rights of vast numbers of people. In the June 2021 case TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez, the Court ruled that although people’s rights under a law enacted by Congress were violated—but the conservative majority in their own opinion did not believe  real “harm” was caused—then those people were not allowed to sue in a federal class action against the company that violated their rights.

In the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Congress determined that consumers have a right to accuracy in the procedures that companies use to report their credit, to receive certain specified information in their credit files, and to receive a summary of their rights from the credit reporting companies. In this case, the credit reporting company TransUnion falsely labelled 8,185 people as potential terrorists or drug traffickers. The company compiled this information based on matching first and last names with those on a federal government list, but without doing rudimentary checks with information in its possession such as middle initials, birth dates, or Social Security numbers. The company included this damaging and misleading information in the credit reports it sold.

When Sergio Ramirez was denied credit, he wrote to TransUnion, which sent him a credit report that included his legal rights, but which did not include the incorrect terrorist list information. The company sent him a second letter separately with only the incorrect terrorist information and, conveniently, without a statement of his rights. Ramirez sued in a class action on behalf of all the other people who had also received incorrect terrorist list information about themselves from TransUnion that didn’t include a statement of their rights under federal law.

In a 5-4 opinion by Justice Kavanaugh (and joined by the other ultra-conservatives except for Thomas), the Court ruled that the class could only include those people who’d had their misleading credit reports provided to third parties. Kavanaugh wrote that the others had not suffered a concrete harm, and therefore do not have standing under the Constitution to hear their cases heard by federal courts.

Justice Kagan wrote a dissent (joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor) sharply criticizing the majority for letting the credit reporting company so easily get away with violating the rights of thousands of people under the Fair Credit Reporting Act:

TransUnion willfully violated that statute’s provisions by preparing credit files that falsely called the plaintiffs potential terrorists, and by obscuring that fact when the plaintiffs requested copies of their files. To say, as the majority does, that the resulting injuries did not “‘exist’ in the real world” is to inhabit a world I don’t know.

The three moderates also joined a dissent written by Justice Thomas noting that the majority seemed to be posing a rhetorical question:

Who could possibly think that a person is harmed when he requests and is sent an incomplete credit report, or is sent a suspicious notice informing him that he may be a designated drug trafficker or terrorist, or is not sent anything informing him of how to remove this inaccurate red flag? The answer is, of course, legion: Congress, the President, the jury, the District Court, the Ninth Circuit, and four Members of this Court.

While this case was about the fair credit reporting statute, the majority’s reasoning is not limited to that particular law. Notably, since this was a 5-4 decision with Barrett in the majority and Thomas in the unusual position of ruling for consumers, it is likely that it would have come out differently had Justice Ginsburg not passed away. Decisions like this are why corporate interests spent so many millions of dollars to put Trump’s nominees on the federal bench. The ruling also highlights the importance of every seat on the Supreme Court as we continue our fight for our courts.