Federal Appeals Court revives Charlotte driver’s lawsuit against city on technical issue

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  • The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a ruling that favored Charlotte in a dispute over drivers' privacy.
  • Appellate judges ruled that the trial court failed to determine first whether it had a right to hear the dispute.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has thrown out a lower court ruling favoring Charlotte in a dispute over drivers’ privacy. Appellate judges ruled that the trial judge failed to address whether his court had a right to hear the case.

Plaintiff Jonathan Hensley argues that the city violated the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994. “Because the district court ruled on the merits of Hensley’s claims without first resolving the City’s jurisdictional challenge, we vacate the district court’s judgment and remand for further proceedings,” wrote Judge Pamela Harris for the unanimous court.

The suit, filed on behalf of Hensley “and a putative class of similarly situated plaintiffs,” alleges that Charlotte “routinely” violated the 1994 law. “According to Hensley, the City knowingly disclosed to the public personal information from motor vehicle records – specifically, accident reports – used by personal injury lawyers to solicit motorists involved in accidents.”

Hensley cited a city contract with the LexisNexis website and a policy allowing public access to the records “over the counter” at the police department’s records division. “After the City made his own accident report available to the public, Hensley claims, he himself received targeted mail solicitations from personal injury lawyers,” Harris wrote.

Charlotte argued that Hensley lacked legal standing to bring his suit. “Hensley could establish … standing, the City explained, only if the injury he claimed to suffer – the receipt of mail solicitations – could be linked causally to the City’s allegedly unlawful disclosures,” Harris wrote. “And here, the City contended, Hensley had not alleged and could not establish that any solicitation he received was based on an accident report improperly disclosed by the City.”

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Bell rejected Charlotte’s motion to dismiss the case. But Bell granted the city’s motion for a “judgment on the pleadings.” That decision amounted to a legal win for Charlotte.

“Hensley, the district court found, had failed to plausibly allege that he was ‘the victim of a wrongful disclosure of his personal information,’ as required to make out a claim under the DPPA,” Harris wrote.

The court already had ruled that the city’s disclosure of accident reports to LexisNexis did not violate federal law. That left only the over-the-counter disclosures to assess. “There was no way to establish which accident reports actually were viewed by the public at that location, and Hensley had not alleged that he ever received a solicitation based on a physical disclosure at the records division,” Harris wrote.  

Bell determined that he did not need to address the city’s jurisdictional challenge. Appellate judges disagreed.

“We appreciate the district court’s efforts to resolve this case as efficiently as possible, without engaging in unnecessary back-and-forth on evidentiary questions,” Harris wrote. “But that route to decision – bypassing a complicated jurisdictional question in favor of a more readily resolved merits ruling – is foreclosed.”

A 1998 precedent “establishes that a federal court’s subject matter jurisdiction is a threshold question that always must be addressed before passing on the merits of a case, even where the merits question is more straightforward.”

“[I]t is incumbent on a court to evaluate its jurisdiction at the outset, lest it inadvertently breach the ‘bounds of authorized judicial action,’” Harris wrote. “And if jurisdiction is lacking, ‘the court cannot proceed at all in any cause’; the ‘only function remaining to the court is that of announcing’ the absence of jurisdiction ‘and dismissing the cause.’”

The case now heads back to the U.S. District Court. As an unpublished opinion, the decision in Hensley v. City of Charlotte does not set a binding precedent in the 4th Circuit.