Header graphic for print
Privacy Law Blog

No Harm, No Lawsuit: Seventh Circuit Refuses Data Breach Lawsuit Where Credit Monitoring Costs Are the Only “Damages” Sought

Posted in Identity Theft

Where the only “damages” alleged following a data security breach are the costs of credit monitoring, a plaintiff has no case, so ruled the Seventh Circuit on August 23, 2007. The decision dealt another blow to so-called “identity exposure” plaintiffs seeking to recover damages stemming from the unauthorized disclosure of their personal information, as the Seventh Circuit’s ruling joined the unanimous line of lower court decisions denying recovery in the absence of actual, present harm.

In Pisciotta v. Old National Bancorp, — F.3d –, 2007 WL 2389770 (7th Cir. Aug. 23, 2007), the court ruled that “Indiana law would not recognize the costs of credit monitoring that the plaintiffs seek to recover in this case as compensable damages.” Id. at *6. In doing so, the Seventh Circuit joins a chorus of federal district courts that uniformly reject such costs as a form of cognizable injury sufficient to support legal claims for damages.

Old National Bancorp (“ONB”) collected customer information online in connection with applications for accounts, loans, and other ONB banking services. This information included customers’ names, addresses, Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, dates of birth, and other financial information. In 2005, ONB’s website was hacked, compromising the personal information ONB maintained about its customers.

Plaintiffs Luciano Pisciotta and Daniel Mills filed a putative class action in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana asserting claims for negligence, breach of contract and implied breach of contract against ONB and its website hosting partner NCR. Plaintiffs alleged that ONB’s failure to protect their personal confidential information caused each member of the class to suffer substantial potential economic damages and emotional distress and worry that third parties might misuse their personal information. But Plaintiffs did not allege that any completed direct financial losses had occurred or that any member of the putative class already had been the victim of identity theft as a result of the breach. Id. at *2.

After the district court dismissed all claims against NCR, ONB filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. The district court granted ONB’s motion, finding that Plaintiffs “have not alleged that ONB’s conduct caused them cognizable injury.” Id. at *2. In reaching this conclusion, the district court found persuasive the decisions of other federal district courts which had rejected “the cost of credit monitoring as an alternative award to for what would otherwise be speculative and unrecoverable damages.” Pisciotta v. Old Nat’l Bancorp, No. 1:05-cv-668-LJM-WTL (S.D. Ind. 2006) (order granting defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings). The district court further noted that “[t]he expenditure of money to monitor one’s credit is not the result of any present injury, but rather the anticipation of future injury that has not yet materialized.” Id. 

The Seventh Circuit, after concluding that Plaintiffs’ allegations satisfied constitutional standing requirements, considered the elements of Plaintiffs’ negligence and breach of contract claims, principally the requirement that Plaintiffs’ demonstrate legally cognizable damages. Pisciotta, 2007 WL 2389970, at *4. (Other courts considering similar claims have dismissed for lack of standing or ripeness, finding that the threat of damage fails to create a case or controversy.) 

The court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that Indiana’s state security breach notification law evidenced the Indiana legislature’s belief that an individual suffers a completed harm at the moment his information is exposed. The court also rejected Plaintiffs’ analogies to medical monitoring cases and several Indiana cases concerning disclosures of personal information by banks. The court pointed out that no Indiana authority had allowed recovery for medical monitoring costs. Id. at *7. In the bank disclosure cases, the plaintiffs suffered direct and immediate reputational injuries and sought to be compensated for that harm, not for their efforts to protect against some future, anticipated injury. Id. at *6.

Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit, like the district court, found the overwhelming weight of authority from other jurisdictions denying recovery for credit monitoring costs persuasive. The court stated:

Although some of these cases involve different types of information losses, all of the cases rely on the same basic premise: Without more than allegations of increased risk of future identity theft, the plaintiffs have not suffered a harm that the law is prepared to remedy.

Id. at *8. 

Pisciotta is the latest in a series of cases that refuse to recognize damages stemming from “identity exposure” absent some evidence of actual identity theft.  See, e.g., Kahle v. Litton Loan Serv. LP, No. 1:05cv756, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 35845, at *22 (S.D. Ohio May 16, 2007); Randolph v. ING Life Ins. and Annuity Co., No. 06-1228 (CKK), 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 11523, *25 (D.D.C. Feb. 5, 2007); Giordano v. Wachovia Sec., LLC, Civ. No. 06-476, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52266, at *12 (D.N.J. July 31, 2006); Forbes v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 420 F. Supp. 2d 1018, 1021 (D. Minn. 2006); Guin v. Brazos Higher Educ. Servs. Corp., No. 05-688 (RHK/JSM), 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4846, at *15 (D. Minn. Feb. 7, 2006); Stollenwerk v. Tri-West Healthcare Alliance, No. Civ. 03-0185-PHX-SRB, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41054, at *10 (D. Ariz. Sept. 8, 2005).