The U.S. Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion today vacating a Ninth Circuit judgment in Frank v. Gaos.  The decision remands the privacy class action settlement claims involving Google for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s Article III standing ruling in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins.

Case Background

In Gaos, the plaintiffs brought claims against Google alleging violations of the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”) and other state laws.  The SCA prohibits entities who provide “an electronic communication service to the public” from “knowingly divulg[ing]” communication contents stored by the entity to any other individual or entity.  It also creates a private right of action for aggrieved individuals to recover for “relief as may be appropriate.” Plaintiffs’ claims were based on Google’s transmission of information about how Google search users arrived at a web page, otherwise known as “referrer headers.”  Referrer headers include information such as the search terms that were input into Google, which led a user to a particular web page.

Although Google moved to dismiss for lack of standing previously in the action, all of its attempts were prior to the Court’s decision in Spokeo.  Accordingly, no lower court decision in the case addressed whether the plaintiffs’ claims satisfied the “concrete injury” standard set forth in Spokeo.  Instead, the lower courts rested on Ninth Circuit precedent, Edwards v. First American Corp., which held that Article III standing can exist solely through the violation of a statutory right —a position explicitly rejected by the Supreme Court in the later-decided Spokeo.

The claim before the Court was initially brought to determine the validity of the class action’s settlement terms.  However, an amicus curiae brief filed by the Solicitor General “urged [the Court] to vacate and remand the case for the lower courts to address standing.”  Following oral argument, the Court ordered supplemental briefing to address “whether any named plaintiff had alleged SCA violations that [were] sufficiently concrete and particularized to support standing.”

The Court’s Holding

Ultimately, because supplemental briefing “raise[d] a wide variety of legal and factual issues not addressed in the merits briefing before [the Court] or at oral argument,” the Court determined that the District Court and the Ninth Circuit were the correct forums for initial resolution of the question of whether plaintiffs’ claims could be sustained under Spokeo.

Although the Court specifically noted that “[n]othing in [its] opinion should be interpreted as expressing a view on any particular resolution of the standing question,” the Court reiterated the principle that a plaintiff does not “automatically” have standing by claiming a violation of a statutory right that authorizes private action.  In the aftermath of Spokeo, some lower courts had continued to find standing in such instances.  The Court’s remand leaves open the possibility of the standing issue being re-escalated to the Court after the Ninth Circuit addresses it.