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Maracich v. Spears - 570 U.S. 48, 133 S. Ct. 2191 (2013)

Rule:

The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 (DPPA), 18 U.S.C.S. § 2721 et seq., provides that, unless one of its exceptions applies, a state department of motor vehicles shall not knowingly disclose or otherwise make available personal information and highly restricted personal information. 18 U.S.C.S. § 2721(a)(1)-(2). Personal information is information that identifies an individual, including a driver identification number, name, address, or telephone number, but does not include information on vehicular accidents, driving violations, and driver’s status. 18 U.S.C.S. § 2725(3). Highly restricted personal information is defined as an individual’s photograph or image, social security number, and medical or disability information. § 2725(4). The DPPA makes it unlawful for any person knowingly to obtain or disclose personal information, from a motor vehicle record, for any use not permitted under § 2721(b). 18 U.S.C.S. § 2722(a). A person who knowingly obtains, discloses, or uses personal information from a motor vehicle record for a purpose not permitted under the chapter shall be liable to the individual to whom the information pertains. 18 U.S.C.S. § 2724(a).

Facts:

Defendant Michael Eugene Spears and several other trial attorneys submitted numerous state Freedom of Information Act requests to the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles ("DMV") seeking names and addresses of thousands of individuals in order to solicit clients for a lawsuit they had pending against several South Carolina car dealerships. The lawsuit alleged violations of a state law that protected car purchasers from dealership actions that were "arbitrary, in bad faith, or unconscionable." Using the personal information provided by the DMV, defendants sent over 34,000 letters to car purchasers, which were headed "ADVERTISING MATERIAL," explained the lawsuit, and asked recipients to return an enclosed reply card if they wanted to participate in the case. Plaintiffs Edward F. Maracich and other recipients of the letter filed a lawsuit against defendants in federal district court alleging violations of the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994 (DPPA). The complaint alleged that defendants violated the DPPA by obtaining, disclosing, and using plaintiffs' personal information from motor vehicle records for bulk solicitation without their express consent. Defendants filed motion to dismiss, claiming that the information was properly released under a DPPA exception permitting disclosure of personal information "for use in connection with any civil, criminal, administrative, or arbitral proceeding," including "investigation in anticipation of litigation." The district court held that defendants' letters were not solicitations and that the use of information fell within 18 U.S.C.S. § 2721(b)(4)'s litigation exception. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the letters were solicitation, but that the solicitation was intertwined with conduct that satisfied the § 2721(b)(4) exception. Plaintiffs were granted a writ of certiorari.

Issue:

Was the solicitation of clients a permissible purpose covered by 18 U.S.C.S. § 2721(b)(4)'s litigation exception?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States vacated the appellate court's judgment and remanded the matter. The Court held that an attorney's solicitation of clients was not a permissible purpose covered by the § 2721(b)(4) litigation exception. Even though the language in the exception relating to litigation could be broadly construed to include defendants' conduct, defendants' solicitation of remunerative employment was a business transaction distinct from conduct on behalf of clients or the court in litigation. Further, prohibiting defendants' solicitation of plaintiffs by using sensitive personal information was consistent with the statutory purpose and design of the DPPA, which was to restrict disclosure of personal information in motor vehicle records, and the litigation exception required language more clear and explicit to protect defendants' actions in the present case. On remand, the Court instructed, the courts below had to determine whether defendants' letters, viewed objectively, had the predominant purpose of solicitation. Further, the lower courts could address whether defendants' conduct was permissible under 18 U.S.C.S. § 2721(b)(1)'s governmental-function exception and any other defenses that had been properly preserved.

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