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Biometric Litigation Continues To Rise As Businesses Work To Minimize Risk

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In 2008, Illinois enacted the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (“BIPA”) with the purpose of recognizing a person’s privacy right to their “biometric information” and “biometric identifiers”.  BIPA was enacted in response to the growing use of biometrics by businesses.   

In part because of its private right of action, by which plaintiffs may bring suit against businesses directly, BIPA litigation remains at the forefront of the data privacy litigation landscape as businesses continue to collect the biometric identifiers of their employees.  Recent BIPA class action settlements with major tech companies like Facebook and TikTok have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but the majority of BIPA litigation is brought against small and medium sized enterprises who collect biometric information in employee timekeeping or for access controls to physical spaces.   

To date, defendants have found courts to be generally unwilling to dismiss BIPA litigation at early motion practice.  Two recent cases, Thornley v. Clearview AI and Barton v. Swan Surfaces, demonstrate that there are some potential limits to BIPA litigation. 

Thornley  v. Clearview AI 

In Thornley, Melissa Thornley accused Clearview AI of scaping publicly available photos from her social media accounts for facial recognition purposes and selling her biometric information to third parties without her consent.  Thornley v. Clearview AI, Inc., 984 F.3d 1241, 1242-1243 (7th Cir. 2021).  Thornley initially filed a complaint in Illinois state court, alleging as a class representative, that Clearview violated § 15(c) of BIPA, which requires in relevant part, that “[n]o private entity in possession of a biometric identifier or biometric information may sell, lease, trade, or otherwise profit from a person’s or a customer’s biometric identifier or biometric information.”  Id. at 1246.  Clearview removed the case to federal court on the basis that the allegation of a statutory violation gave rise to a concrete and particularized injury-in-fact that is necessary for Article III standing.  Id. at 1243.  Under the Constitution, a plaintiff must have Article III standing to sue in federal court, which requires that the plaintiff prove: (1) an injury in fact; (2) causation of the injury by the defendant; and (3) that the injury is likely to be redressed by the requested relief.  See Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540, 1547 (2016).  In Spokeo, the Supreme Court of the United States held that a statutory violation could be sufficient to constitute an injury in fact; however, it did not provide any analysis as to which types of statutory violations necessarily implicate concrete and particularized injuries in fact.  Id.   

The district court held that Clearview alleged violation of § 15(c) of BIPA was “only a bare statutory violation, not the kind of concrete and particularized harm that would support standing”, the case must be remanded to the state court.  Thornley., 984 F.3d at 1242.  Clearview then appealed to the Seventh Circuit, who concurred with the District Court and remanded the case back to the Illinois State Court for much the same lack of standing.  Id.  Clearview has now petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States to take its case.  See Porter Wells, Clearview AI Will Take BIPA Standing Challenge to Supreme Court. 

Barton v. Swan Surfaces, LLC 

In Barton, a unionized employee of Swan Surfaces, LLC (“Swan”) was required to clock in and out of her employer’s manufacturing plant using her fingerprints as part of company protocol.  Barton v. Swan Surfaces, LLC, No. No. 20-cv-499-SPM, 2021 WL 793983 at *1 (S.D. Ill March 2, 2021).  On May 29, 2020 Barton filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois alleging that she represented a class of individuals who “while residing in the State of Illinois, had their fingerprints collected, captured, received, otherwise obtained and/or stored by Swan”.  Id. at *2.  Barton asserted Swan violated BIPA in: (1) failing to institute, maintain, and adhere to publicly available retention schedule in violation of 740 ILCS 14/15(a); and (2) failing to obtain informed written consent and release before collecting biometric of information.  Id.  On July 31, 2020, Swan filed a Motion to Dismiss, asserting in relevant part, that Barton’s BIPA claims were preempted by § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (“LMRA”).  Id.  

On March 2, 2021, the court held that as Barton was a unionized employee, her Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”), which contained a management rights clause and grievance procedure, controlled and as such Barton’s BIPA claims were preempted by § 301 of the LMRA.  In coming to its conclusion, the court heavily relied on the courts holding in Miller v. Southwest Airlines, Inc., 926 F.3d 898 (7th Cir. 2019). Id. at *6. In Miller, the Seventh Circuit held an adjustment board had to resolve the employees’ dispute over the airline’s fingerprint collection practices because their unions may have bargained over the practice on their behalf.  Miller, 926 F.3d 898.  The court in Barton noted that the United States “Supreme Court has held that the RLA preemption standard is virtually identical to the pre-emption standard the Court employs in cases involving § 301 of the LMRA” and therefore the same outcome should apply.  Barton, 2021 WL 793983 at *4. 

Key Takeaway 

While these cases demonstrate the potential to circumvent or limit BIPA litigation, the increased volume of biometric information being used by companies and the push for biometric policies that govern the use of these technologies and promote safeguards for consumers will undoubtedly continue.  

With many states looking to implement biometric privacy laws similar to BIPA, it is important to have legal tech counsel to address compliance with these emerging laws. Beckage attorneys, who are also technologists and former tech business owners, have years of collective experience with new technologies, like artificial intelligence, biometric data, facial recognition technology. We have a team of highly skilled lawyers that stay up to date on all developments in case law on BIPA and who can help your company best defense given the current legal landscape. Our team can help assist your company in assessing and mitigating risks associated with emerging technologies. 

*Attorney Advertising: Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. 

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