The United States Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit ruled Tuesday that the federal government cannot invoke the defense of sovereign immunity for violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, but the court also dismissed on separate grounds the underlying class action proceeding relating to the government’s alleged unlawful disclosure of plaintiff’s credit card information.
In the first appellate decision to address the issue, a unanimous three-judge panel found that the plain language of the FCRA clearly waives the government’s sovereign immunity. The decision was authored by Judge Frank H. Easterbrook.
In the opinion, the panel rejected the government’s position that Congress never intended to subject the government to the same liability imposed on businesses under the FCRA for printing sensitive credit card data on a receipt. The court also held that legislative history to the contrary cannot override the “natural meaning” of the text. “Congress need not add ‘we really mean it!’ to make statutes effectual,” the opinion said. “It takes unequivocal language to waive the national government’s sovereign immunity … but this means unequivocal language in a statute, not in a committee report.” “The text is what it is, no matter which side benefits,” the opinion said.
A full copy of the court’s opinion can be located here.