In 2006, several individuals who had bought cars contacted a group of lawyers in South Carolina claiming various car dealerships overcharged them. To investigate this claim, the lawyers requested from the state department of motor vehicles the disclosure of the personal information of thousands of people who had bought from dealerships in Spartanburg County. Under the Driver's Privacy Protection Act ("DPPA"), this information is normally protected from disclosure. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that although the lawyers engaged in mass solicitation without the consent of the person whose information was disclosed, the litigation exception of the DPPA nonetheless protected the lawyers' activity. Petitioner Maracich argues that the DPPA provision requiring the consent of individuals to disclose their personal information imposes a consent requirement onto requests to solicit potential clients for the purpose of litigation. In contrast, Respondent Spears argues that the DPPA exception for litigation waives the consent requirement for solicitation specifically related to litigation. The Supreme Court accepted certiorari on September 25, 2012 to examine the merits of the Fourth Circuit's decision. The outcome of this case may help determine how far lawyers can go to obtain personal information and how far Congress can go to reach into an area traditionally regulated by the States.
The Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994 ("DPPA" or "Act"), 18 U.S.C. §§ 2721- 2725, prohibits the obtainment, use, or disclosure of "personal information" maintained in state motor vehicle department ("DMV") databases, unless the use of such information falls within one of several discrete enumerated exceptions.
This case presents an opportunity for this Court to resolve a conflict among the circuits and even state courts as to the circumstances under which the litigation exception to the Act permits lawyers special rights of access to DPPA protected information.
In this case, the Fourth Circuit became the first court to hold that the acquisition and use by lawyers of confidential information from a DPPA-protected database solely for the purpose of soliciting clients, as opposed to searching for evidence or witnesses, qualified as a use "in connection with" litigation, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2721(b)(4).
The Eleventh Circuit, the Third Circuit, and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, on the other hand, have held that the litigation exception does not permit lawyers to obtain or use DPPA-protected information to find or solicit clients. Instead, these courts have made clear that the litigation exception permits use of private information only when the information is relevant or likely to lead to discovery of evidence or witnesses. The Fourth Circuit has crossed that line, thereby inserting into the DPPA what amounts to a "for use by lawyers" exception, as opposed to a "for use in litigation" exception, and further muddling an already confusing and conflicted area of the law.
This petition asks the Court to consider two questions:
1. Whether the Fourth Circuit erred in holding, contrary to every other court heretofore to have considered the issue, that lawyers who obtain, disclose, or use personal information solely to find clients to represent in an incipient lawsuit—as opposed to evidence for use in existing or potential litigation—may seek solace under the litigation exception of the Act.
2. Whether the Fourth Circuit erred in reaching the conclusion (in conflict with prior precedent) that a lawyer who files an action that effectively amounts to a "place holder" lawsuit may thereafter use DPPA-protected personal information to solicit plaintiffs for that action through a direct mail advertising campaign on the grounds that such use is "inextricably intertwined" with "use in litigation."
- Thomson Reuters: Supreme Court to decide if driver info is fair game for lawyers (Sep. 25, 2012)
- Electronic Privacy Information Center: Maracich v. Spears, Concerning the Scope of the ‘Litigation’ Exception to the Drivers' Privacy Protection Act