6/19/2013US Supreme Court Rules Against DMV Disclosing Driver Info
High court rules lawyers cannot use state DMV records to send out solicitations for class action lawsuits.
The US Supreme Court issued a ruling Monday confirming federal privacy protections for the personal information stored by state motor vehicle departments. The justices considered the issue in a case where one group of lawyers found a way to file a $200 million class action lawsuit against another group of lawyers that also files class action lawsuits.
It all started in 2006 when a group of drivers had received a solicitation from a attorneys hunting for people who had recently purchased a car in the hopes of enticing them to join a class action lawsuit against automobile dealers. These attorneys received the names, addresses and telephone numbers of 34,000 drivers, along with information on their automobiles and when and where they purchased them from the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
Ordinarily, the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) prohibits the disclosure of personal information from motor vehicle records, unless it is for law enforcement or public safety purposes. The law does have an additional exemption for "investigation in anticipation of litigation." Lawyers for drivers who received the letters sued on the belief that this exemption did not apply because the letters were advertisements of the sort prohibited in another section of the statute (and because they stood to share in a massive judgment of up to $2500 per violation). The high court justices agreed in a 5-4 decision.
"As this opinion explains in more detail, the statute itself, in (b)(12), treats bulk solicitation absent consent as a discrete act that the statute prohibits," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority. "And the limited examples of permissible litigation purposes provided in (b)(4) are distinct from the ordinary commercial purpose of solicitation."
The majority argued that the attorneys were acting not as officers of the court but as a commercial enterprise when sending out the advertisements. As such, they were soliciting new business, not litigating.
"Here, as will be the case for most solicitations, the attorneys acted without court authorization or supervision and cast a wide net, sending letters to over 30,000 car purchasers to let them know the attorneys' names and the attorneys' interest in performing legal services for them," Kennedy wrote.
The majority also noted that the litigation exemption allows disclosure of Social Security numbers and medical history information that is highly sensitive and not appropriate for use in a solicitation without undermining the privacy protection Congress intended with the statute.
"Petitioners and other state residents have no real choice but to disclose their personal information to the state DMV, including highly restricted personal information," Kennedy wrote. "The use of that information by private actors to send direct commercial solicitations without the license holder's consent is a substantial intrusion on the individual privacy the act protects."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, arguing the majority used a tortured reading of a simple statute to achieve an incorrect result.
A copy of the decision is available in a 500k PDF file at the source link below.