Supreme Court To Decide Whether U.S. Govt. Can Be Sued For Fair Credit Reporting Act Violations

While the U.S. government — the largest creditor, lender, and employer in the country — is technically bound by the laws set forth in the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the feds claim sovereign immunity and say they can’t be sued for violating that same act. Yesterday, the Supreme Court discussed whether or not the government should be able to hide behind that shield or if it should have to defend itself against a class-action lawsuit claiming it violated the FCRA.

A man in Chicago claims that when the U.S. government printed a portion of his credit card number and the card’s expiration date on a receipt, it violated the following portion of the the FCRA [PDF]:

Except as otherwise provided in this subsection, no person that accepts credit cards or debit cards for the transaction of business shall print more than the last 5 digits of the card number or the expiration date upon any receipt provided to the cardholder at the point of the sale or transaction.

A federal court in Illinois had initially thrown the case out, claiming that since Congress did not explicitly waive sovereign immunity in the Act, the suit could not proceed.

But a U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling that the Tucker Act, which waives sovereign immunity in some circumstances, applied to this case.

Yesterday, Justice Ginsburg asked lawyers representing the feds, “The act applies to the government, but your point is that there’s no sanction for noncompliance, even though the United States, a government system, is supposed to conform to the standards in the act?”

“Are we taking the position that even if substantive obligations run against the United States, there still wouldn’t be a remedy, at least a remedy in damages against the United States? And the answer to that is yes,” replied the government’s legal eagle. “But that’s not at all atypical under this court’s sovereign immunity jurisprudence, and it’s not at all atypical for Congress to have fashioned a scheme that runs in that way.”

The lawyer arguing in favor of the class-action suit countered: “Knowing that the government is one of the largest issuers of credit card receipts, one would have to wonder why they would want to exclude the government in terms of protecting the public.”

In fact, among the parties that can be liable for violating the FCRA, the Act lists, “any individual, partnership, corporation, trust, estate, cooperative, association, government or governmental subdivision or agency.”

“Any” would seem to include the federal government, but lawyers for the federal government say that it doesn’t specifically list the U.S. government.

Supreme Court questions lawsuit against US government over credit card printing violation [Washington Post]