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SCOTUS considers excessive force, discrimination and personal data issues

April 27, 2015

The Supreme Court of the United States said Monday it will decide whether websites and other firms that collect personal data can be sued for publishing inaccurate information even if the mistakes don't cause any actual harm. It is also considering time limits for discrimination claims and issues involving excessive force against inmates awaiting trial.

The personal data case is being watched closely by Google, Facebook and other Internet companies concerned that class-action lawsuits under the Fair Credit Reporting Act could expose them to billions of dollars in damages.

The justices will hear an appeal from Spokeo.com, an Internet search engine that compiles publicly available data on people and lets subscribers view the information, including address, age, marital status and economic health.

Thomas Robins, a Virginia resident, sued Spokeo after viewing a profile on him that was riddled with errors. It incorrectly stated his age, that he had a graduate degree, was employed and married with children. In fact, Robins was unemployed and looking for work. He claims the false information damaged his job prospects.

A federal district court said Robins had no right to sue because he hadn't suffered any actual harm from the errors. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, ruling it was enough that Spokeo had violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

The law was intended to keep credit reporting agencies from compiling inaccurate information that could jeopardize people's ability to get loans or pass job-related background checks.

Robins is pursuing a class action against Spokeo on behalf of thousands of other plaintiffs who also say the company published erroneous information about them. If a class is certified, the company could face damages of $1,000 per violation under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which could add up to billions of dollars.

The Obama administration had urged the court not to take the case, arguing that consumers could sue over misleading data as long as it violated the law — regardless of whether they were harmed.

The justices also on Monday agreed to hear an appeal from a former Colorado postmaster who says the U.S. Postal Service retaliated against him after he claimed he was passed over for a promotion because he is black.

Marvin Green filed a lawsuit alleging "constructive discharge," meaning conditions were so intolerable he was forced out. A federal district court ruled that his lawsuit was too late because it was filed more than 45 days after last act of alleged misconduct occurred. A federal appeals court agreed.

Green argues the 45-day time period began running when he resigned.

The Supreme Court will resolve a split among lower courts over when the clock starts running.

And the justices are struggling over when jail officials should be held accountable for using excessive force against inmates who are accused — but not yet convicted — of crimes.

The argument Monday comes amid a national debate over how police use force in arresting unarmed suspects.

The case involves a Wisconsin man in jail pending trial on drug charges. Michael Kingsley claims officers used excessive force while they transferred him to another cell.

Kingsley sued for civil rights violations, but a jury sided with the officers. A federal appeals court rejected Kingsley's argument that he only needed to show the conduct was unreasonable.

The justices considered whether people awaiting trial who sue prison guards for misconduct must show the use of force was intentional instead of simply unreasonable.

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