Split U.S. Supreme Court Rules Attorneys May Not Use DMV Info To Solicit Clients

Split U.S. Supreme Court Rules Attorneys May Not Use DMV Info To Solicit Clients

WASHINGTON, D.C. - (Mealey's) Soliciting clients for a class action lawsuit is not a permissible attorney action covered by the Driver's Privacy Protection Act's litigation exception, a split U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 17 (Edward F. Maracich, et al. v. Michael Eugene Spears, et al., No. 12-25, U.S. Sup.). [lexis.com subscribers may access Supreme Court briefs for this case].

(Opinion available.  Document #43-130621-007Z.)

"Attorneys are free to solicit plaintiffs through traditional and permitted advertising without obtaining personal information from a state DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles].  . . .  In light of these and other alternatives, attorneys are not without the necessary means to aggregate a class of plaintiffs.  What they may not do, however, is to acquire highly restricted personal information from state DMV records to send bulk solicitations without express consent from the targeted recipients," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. 

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. joined in the majority opinion. 

Freedom Of Information Request 

On June 23, 2006, a South Carolina attorney submitted a state Freedom of Information Act request to the South Carolina DMV.  The attorney was seeking to determine if charging illegal administrative fees was a common practice so that a lawsuit could be brought as a representative action under the South Carolina Regulation of Manufacturers, Distributors and Dealers Act (MDDA).   

The attorney's letter requested information regarding "[p]rivate purchases of new or used automobiles in Spartanburg County during the week of May 1-7, 2006, including the name, address, and telephone number of the buyer, dealership where purchased, type of vehicle purchased, and the date of purchase."  The South Carolina DMV provided the requested information. 

On Aug. 24, 2006, the attorney and several others submitted a second FOIA request to the DMV seeking the information for car purchasers in five additional counties during the same week.  The attorneys asserted that, like the first request, it was being made "in anticipation of litigation . . . pursuant to the exception in 18 USC §2721(b)(4)." 

South Carolina Complaint 

On Aug. 29, 2006, the attorneys filed a suit in South Carolina state court on behalf of four consumers who originally contacted them about the administrative fees.  The case is referred to as the Herron suit.  The Herron complaint named 51 dealers as defendants and invoked the MDDA's "group action" provision to assert claims "for the benefit of all South Carolina car buyers wh[o] paid administrative fees."   

Some of the dealers moved to dismiss for lack of standing because none of the named plaintiffs purchased cars from them.  On Oct. 26, 2006, while the motions to dismiss were pending, the attorneys submitted a new FOIA request to the South Carolina DMV.  That request sought to locate additional car buyers who could serve as plaintiffs against the dealers who had moved to dismiss.  On Oct. 31, 2006, the attorneys filed an amended complaint that added four named plaintiffs and increased the number of defendant dealers from 51 to 324.  Once again, the defendant dealerships that had not engaged in any transactions with any of the eight named plaintiffs moved to dismiss for lack of standing. 

Mass Mailing 

On Jan. 3, 2007, using the information from the DMV, the attorneys sent a mass mailing to find car buyers to serve as additional plaintiffs in the litigation against the dealers. 

Later in January, the attorneys filed three more FOIA requests with the DMV seeking personal information concerning people who had purchased cars from an additional 31 dealerships.  The DMV granted all the requests. 

The attorneys mailed additional rounds of letters to car buyers whose information had been disclosed by the DMV on Jan. 23, March 1, March 5 and May 8.  In total, the attorneys sent letters to more than 34,000 car buyers in South Carolina.   

In June 2007, the attorneys sought to amend their complaint to add 247 plaintiffs.  The court denied leave to amend and held that the named plaintiffs had standing to sue only those dealerships from which they had purchased automobiles and any alleged co-conspirators. 

In September 2007, the attorneys filed two new lawsuits on behalf of additional car buyers.  Those cases were consolidated with the Herron suit.  All claims against dealerships without a corresponding plaintiff-purchaser were dropped.   

Privacy Violation

Three of the recipients of the attorneys' letter - Edward Maracich, Martha Weeks and John Tanner - filed a class complaint against the attorneys in 2009 in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina.  The plaintiffs alleged that the attorneys violated the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) by obtaining, disclosing and using personal information from motor vehicle records for bulk solicitation without the express consent of petitioners and the other class members. 

The attorneys moved to dismiss.  The District Court held that the attorneys' use of the personal information was permitted under the DPPA's (b)(1) governmental-function exception.  The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed.  However, the appellate panel held that the letters were "solicitations" within the meaning of the DPPA but that "solicitation is an accepted and expected element of, and is inextricably intertwined with, conduct satisfying the litigation exception under the DPPA, such solicitation is not actionable." 

The letter recipients then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Dissenting Opinion  

Disagreeing with the high court majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opined that the lower courts were correct.  "As the Fourth Circuit explained, respondents 'did what any good lawyer would have done.'  675 F. 3d 281, 298 (2012).  This Court's holding, exposing respondents not only to astronomical liquidated damages, §2724(b)(1), but to criminal fines as well, §2723(a), is scarcely what Congress ordered in enacting the DPPA. 

Respondent-lawyers obtained and used DMV information for 'investigation in anticipation of litigation' and for communications 'in connection with' a civil action.  I would read that statutory language to permit use of DMV information tied to a specific, concrete proceeding, imminent or ongoing, with identified parties on both sides of the controversy.  So read, §2721(b)(4) permitted the lawyers' conduct.  Neither §2721(b)(12) nor any other provision of the DPPA warrants the massive liability this Court's judgment authorizes," she wrote.   

Justices Antonin Scalia, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined in the dissenting opinion. 

Counsel 

Philip N. Elbert of Neal & Harwell in Nashville, Tenn., represents the petitioners.  Paul D. Clement of Bancroft in Washington and M. Dawes Cooke Jr. of Charleston, S.C., represent the attorneys. 

Arlene Fickler of Philadelphia filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and 27 technical experts and legal scholars.

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