By Terry Baynes and Jonathan Stempel
WASHINGTON, Sept 25 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on
Tuesday agreed to consider whether lawyers violated drivers'
privacy rights by gathering personal information from state
motor vehicle records with a view to recruiting prospective
plaintiffs for lawsuits.
The high court agreed to hear the appeal of a group of car
buyers who said four lawyers had violated the federal Driver's
Privacy Protection Act by obtaining and using their private
information from the South Carolina Department of Motor
In planning lawsuits against car dealers over alleged unfair
business practices, the lawyers obtained car buyers' names,
addresses and car purchase information from the state DMV
through freedom of information requests. The lawyers then sent
mailings to the potential plaintiffs about the planned dealer
Three car buyers sued in 2009, accusing the lawyers, Michael
Spears, Gedney Howe, Richard Harpootlian and Camden Lewis, of
using their personal information for mass solicitation in
violation of the federal privacy law.
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the
lawyers that their actions were allowed under the so-called
"litigation exception" to the Driver's Privacy Protection Act,
which permits the release and use of private information for an
investigation in anticipation of litigation.
It found that because the lawyers had already been contacted
by potential plaintiffs, they were not just "trolling" for
Philip Elbert, a lawyer for the car buyers, welcomed the
Supreme Court's decision to review the case. He said the 4th
Circuit decision had expanded the litigation exception, despite
contrary rules by other federal appeals courts that allow the
practice to find evidence or witnesses for an existing case but
not clients for a new case.
Dawes Cooke, who represents the lawyers, said he was
confident the 4th Circuit's interpretation was correct.
"We hope to convince the Supreme Court that, to the extent a
conflict might exist among the Circuits, the Fourth Circuit's
analysis reflects both the plain wording of the Act and
congressional intent, and should therefore prevail," Cooke said
in an email.
The case is Maracich v. Spears, U.S. Supreme Court, No.
For Maracich: Philip Elbert of Neal & Harwell.
For Spears: Dawes Cooke of Barnwell Whaley Patterson &
Follow us on Twitter @ReutersLegal | Like us on Facebook