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Supreme Court rules lawyers cannot solicit clients through DMV records

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 Monday in Maracich v. Spears [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that an attorney's solicitation of clients is not a permissible purpose covered by the litigation exception to the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) [text]. Under the DPPA, disclosure of personal information contained in the records of state motor vehicle departments (DMVs) is prohibited except for a purpose permitted by an exception listed in 1 of 14 statutory subsections. Subsection (b)(4) permits obtaining personal information from a state DMV for use "in connection with" judicial and administrative proceedings, including "investigation in anticipation of litigation." Respondents obtained names and addresses of thousands of individuals from the South Carolina DMV in order to send letters to find plaintiffs for a lawsuit they had filed against car dealers for violations of South Carolina law. Petitioners, South Carolina residents whose information was obtained and used without their consent, sued respondents for violating the DPPA. Respondents claimed the solicitation letters were permitted under subsection (b)(4). In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kenned, the court disagreed: "In light of the text, structure, and purpose of the DPPA, the Court now holds that an attorney's solicitation of clients is not a permissible purpose covered by the (b)(4) litigation exception." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Ginsburg concludes: "The Court today exposes lawyers whose conduct meets state ethical requirements to huge civil liability and potential criminal liability. It does so by adding to the DPPA's litigation exception a solicitation bar Congress did not place in that exception."

The court heard arguments [JURIST report] in this case in January. Counsel for the petitioners argued that the opposing lawyers were undertaking a solicitation of individuals as potential clients for their own commercial purpose and were not using the information in connection with litigation. They further argued that the primary purpose of the DPPA was to prevent such solicitations, thus all of the exceptions must be read in light of that primary purpose. Counsel for the respondents, argued that the "litigation" exception was extremely broad, authorizing any use of driver information "covering the litigation process from cradle to grave."

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