Lambert v. Hartman

Decision Date25 February 2008
Docket NumberNo. 07-3154.,07-3154.
Citation517 F.3d 433
PartiesCynthia LAMBERT, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Greg HARTMAN, in his official capacity as Clerk of Courts, and Hamilton County Board of County Commissioners, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Marc D. Mezibov, Law Office of Marc Mezibov, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellant. Pamela J. Sears, Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Marc D. Mezibov, Christian A. Jenkins, Stacy Ann Hinners, Law Office of Marc Mezibov, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellant. Pamela J. Sears, Michael G. Florez, Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellees.

Before: GUY, GILMAN, and McKEAGUE, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

RONALD LEE GILMAN, Circuit Judge.

Cynthia Lambert appeals the district court's dismissal of her complaint against Greg Hartmann in his official capacity as the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts (the "Clerk") and against the Hamilton County Board of County Commissioners (the "County") (collectively the "Defendants"). In September of 2003, Lambert received a traffic citation for speeding. She later discovered that this citation, which contained personal identifying information (including her Social Security number), had been published on the Clerk's public website.

Lambert sued the Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the publication of the citation violated her constitutional right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She further asserted that her identity had been stolen by a third party as a direct result of the Clerk's publication of the citation, and that she had consequently suffered economic damages, damage to her personal credit rating, and damage to her reputation. Lambert also raised state-law claims and sought to certify her complaint as a class action.

The Defendants moved to dismiss Lambert's complaint on the basis that she had failed to state a claim under § 1983. Concluding that Lambert's § 1983 claim must fail because her alleged privacy interest was not of a constitutional dimension, the district court granted the Defendants' motion. The court then dismissed her pendent state-law claims without prejudice. Lambert argues that the court erred in dismissing her complaint and renews her claim that the Defendants violated her constitutional right to privacy. For the reasons set forth below, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

I. BACKGROUND
A. Factual background

In September of 2003, Lambert received a traffic citation for speeding in Hamilton County, Ohio. The issuing officer completed an Ohio Uniform Traffic Ticket, a form used throughout Ohio that includes a person's name, signature, home address, birth date, driver's license number, and Social Security number. One copy of the citation was given to Lambert, and another was filed with the Clerk's Office. Approximately a year after she received the citation, Lambert was contacted by two retail stores about suspicious purchases that had been made in her name. The individual who made the purchases presented a driver's license that displayed Lambert's full name, home address, birth date, driver's license number, and Social Security number.

During her conversations with the retailers, Lambert was informed that the identity thief might have gained access to her personal information through the Clerk's website. Lambert then looked on the internet and discovered that the Clerk's publicly accessible site made it possible to search and locate traffic citations that retained all of an individual's identifying information, including his or her Social Security number. When Lambert examined her citation on the website, she realized that, like the fake identification used by the identity thief, the citation contained a driver's license number that was incorrect by one digit. Lambert promptly called the Clerk's Office to complain about the publication of her personal information. The Clerk's Office refused to remove the information, explaining to Lambert that the records were made public for the convenience of the parties and that to remove the records "would require vast amounts of manpower."

Lambert filed suit against the Defendants in December of 2004. By that time, law enforcement officials had apprehended a group of individuals who had gained access to the personal information of numerous people found on the Clerk's website and had used that information to commit identity theft. The police informed Lambert that they had arrested a person who was a part of that ring, a woman who later admitted that she was the thief who stole Lambert's identity from the Clerk's website. That woman was later charged with a conspiracy to commit identity theft, convicted, and sentenced to 139 months' imprisonment for her actions.

B. Procedural background

Lambert's claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleged that the Clerk's policy and practice of publishing personal information on a public website violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to privacy, in addition to her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and her Fourteenth Amendment rights to substantive and procedural due process. She contended that, as a result of the Clerk's policy, she had suffered "economic damages, damages to her personal credit rating, and damage to her reputation." Lambert also raised claims under the common law of Ohio for violation of her right to privacy and the tort of publication of private facts. Finally, she requested the certification of a class action under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on behalf of a putative class of "hundreds of thousands" of people whose Social Security numbers had been published on the Clerk's website.

Lambert originally sought declaratory relief, compensatory damages, and an injunction to prevent the publication of the personal information in question. She later sought leave to amend her complaint, removing her demand for compensatory damages and substituting instead a request for "uniform, class-wide relief in the form of a credit monitoring fund or other prophylactic measure to detect or prevent potential identity theft."

The Defendants moved to dismiss Lambert's complaint, arguing, among other things, that she had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. In December of 2006, the district court entered an order granting the Defendants' motion and dismissing all of Lambert's claims. The court reviewed Sixth Circuit precedent addressing the constitutional right to privacy of personal information and concluded that Lambert's claim was without merit because the privacy interest she asserted did "not implicate either a fundamental right or one implicit in the concept of ordered liberty." Noting that Lambert identified only a "risk of financial harm," the court determined that this injury "bears no equivalence to the potential and actual harm" suffered by the plaintiffs in cases where the Sixth Circuit has recognized a Fourteenth Amendment right to privacy against the disclosure of personal information. The district court therefore agreed with the Defendants that Lambert's claim failed to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, concluded that a ruling on her proposed amended complaint was unnecessary, and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over her state-law claims. This timely appeal followed.

II. ANALYSIS
A. Standing

The Defendants assert that because Lambert is no longer seeking compensatory damages and "limits her remedy to credit monitoring relief," she does not have standing to bring her claim. Their contention on this point is somewhat confusing, interchangeably arguing that Lambert's injury is not fairly traceable to the publication of her Social Security number and that "the injury of identity theft in the future is too speculative and conjectural to entitle her to [credit-monitoring] relief." Lambert has failed to address the Defendants' challenge, but we nevertheless conclude that, she has standing to bring her claim.

To bring a claim in federal court, a plaintiff "must satisfy the threshold requirement imposed by Article HI of the Constitution by alleging an actual case or controversy." City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 101, 103 S.Ct. 1660, 75 L.Ed.2d 675 (1983). This burden can be met by Lambert showing that "(1) [she] has suffered an `injury in fact' that is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical; (2)[her] injury is fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant; and (3) it is likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that [her] injury will `be redressed by a favorable decision." See Daubenmire v. City of Columbus, 507 F.3d 383, 388 (6th Cir.2007) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Lambert has alleged that her identity was stolen and that her financial security and credit rating suffered as a result. She also claims that because of the nature of identity theft, she has been exposed to the risk that people have accessed her personal information on the internet and will be able to use that information to commit future acts of identity theft against her. Although this latter, injury is somewhat "hypothetical" and "conjectural," her actual financial injuries are sufficient to meet the injury-in-fact requirement. See Club Italia Soccer & Sports Org., Inc. v. Charter Twp. of Shelby, Mich., 470 F.3d 286, 294 (6th Cir.2006) (noting that "[t]his Court has explicitly held that" certain types of economic injuries are sufficient to confer standing).

Indeed, the Defendants do not dispute that Lambert has been injured. They instead attack her standing on the basis that her injuries are not fairly traceable to the Clerk's website. Specifically, they argue that the harm suffered by Lambert was caused by an intervening act—the criminal act of a third party. They therefore claim that...

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