Justice SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA or Act) requires notice to any consumer subjected to "adverse action ... based in whole or in part on any information contained in a consumer [credit] report." 15 U.S.C. § 1681m(a). Anyone who "willfully fails" to provide notice is civilly liable to the consumer. § 1681n(a). The questions in these consolidated cases are whether willful failure covers a violation committed in reckless disregard of the notice obligation, and, if so, whether petitioners Safeco and GEICO committed reckless violations. We hold that reckless action is covered, that GEICO did not violate the statute, and that while Safeco might have, it did not act recklessly.
Congress enacted FCRA in 1970 to ensure fair and accurate credit reporting, promote efficiency in the banking system, and protect consumer privacy. See 84
FCRA provides a private right of action against businesses that use consumer reports but fail to comply. If a violation is negligent, the affected consumer is entitled to actual damages. § 1681o (a) (2000 ed., Supp. IV). If willful, however, the consumer may have actual damages, or statutory damages ranging from $100 to $1,000, and even punitive damages. § 1681n(a) (2000 ed.).
For some time after FCRA went into effect, GEICO sent adverse action notices to all applicants who were not offered "preferred" policies from GEICO General or Government Employees. GEICO changed its practice, however, after a method to "neutralize" an applicant's credit score was devised: the applicant's company and tier placement is compared with the company and tier placement he would have been assigned with a "neutral" credit score, that is, one calculated without reliance
Respondent Ajene Edo applied for auto insurance with GEICO. After obtaining Edo's credit score, GEICO offered him a standard policy with GEICO Indemnity (at rates higher than the most favorable), which he accepted. Because Edo's company and tier placement would have been the same with a neutral score, GEICO did not give Edo an adverse action notice. Edo later filed this proposed class action against GEICO, alleging willful failure to give notice in violation of § 1681m(a); he claimed no actual harm, but sought statutory and punitive damages under § 1681n(a). The District Court granted summary judgment for GEICO, finding there was no adverse action when "the premium charged to [Edo] ... would have been the same even if GEICO Indemnity did not consider information in [his] consumer credit history." Edo v. GEICO Casualty Co., CV 02-678-BR, 2004 WL 3639689, *4, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28522, *12 (D.Ore., Feb. 23, 2004), App. to Pet. for Cert. in No. 06-100, p. 46a.
Like GEICO, petitioner Safeco
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed both judgments. In GEICO's case, it held that whenever a consumer "would have received a lower rate for his insurance had the information in his consumer report been more favorable, an adverse action has been taken against him." Reynolds v. Hartford Financial Servs. Group, Inc., 435 F.3d 1081, 1093 (2006). Since a better credit score would have placed Edo with GEICO General, not GEICO Indemnity, the appeals court held that GEICO's failure to give notice was an adverse action.
The Ninth Circuit also held that an insurer "willfully" fails to comply with FCRA if it acts with "reckless disregard" of a consumer's rights under the Act. Id., at 1099. It explained that a company would not be acting recklessly if it "diligently and in good faith attempted to fulfill its statutory obligations" and came to a "tenable, albeit erroneous, interpretation of the statute." Ibid. The court went on to say that "a deliberate failure to determine
In the action against Safeco, the Court of Appeals rejected the District Court's position, relying on its reasoning in GEICO's case (where it had held that the notice requirement applies to a single statement of an initial charge for a new policy). Spano v. Safeco Corp., 140 Fed. Appx. 746 (2005). The Court of Appeals also rejected Safeco's argument that its conduct was not willful, again citing the GEICO case, and remanded for further proceedings.
We consolidated the two matters and granted certiorari to resolve a conflict in the Circuits as to whether § 1681n(a) reaches reckless disregard of FCRA's obligations,
GEICO and Safeco argue that liability under § 1681n(a) for "willfully fail[ing] to comply" with FCRA goes only to acts known to violate the Act, not to reckless disregard of statutory duty, but we think they are wrong. We have said before that "willfully" is a "word of many meanings whose construction is often dependent on the context in which it appears," Bryan v. United States, 524 U.S. 184, 191, 118 S.Ct. 1939, 141 L.Ed.2d 197 (1998) (internal quotation marks omitted); and where willfulness is a statutory condition of civil liability, we have generally taken it to cover not only knowing violations of a standard, but reckless ones as well, see McLaughlin v. Richland Shoe Co., 486 U.S. 128, 132-133, 108 S.Ct. 1677, 100 L.Ed.2d 115 (1988) ("willful," as used in a limitation provision for actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act, covers claims of reckless violation); Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Thurston, 469 U.S. 111, 125-126, 105 S.Ct. 613, 83 L.Ed.2d 523 (1985) (same, as to a liquidated damages provision of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967); cf. United States v. Illinois Central R. Co., 303 U.S. 239, 242-243, 58 S.Ct. 533, 82 S.Ct. 773 (1938) ("willfully," as used in a civil penalty provision, includes "`conduct marked by careless disregard whether or not one has the right so to act'" (quoting United States v. Murdock, 290 U.S. 389, 395, 54 S.Ct. 223, 78 S.Ct. 381 (1933))). This construction reflects common law usage, which treated actions in "reckless disregard" of the law as "willful" violations. See W. Keeton, D. Dobbs, R. Keeton, & D. Owen, Prosser and Keeton on Law of Torts § 34, p. 212 (5th ed.1984) (hereinafter Prosser and Keeton) ("Although efforts have been
GEICO and Safeco argue that Congress did point to something different in FCRA, by a drafting history of § 1681n(a) said to show that liability was supposed to attach only to knowing violations. The original version of the Senate bill that turned out as FCRA had two standards of liability to victims: grossly negligent violation (supporting actual damages) and willful violation (supporting actual, statutory, and punitive damages). S. 823, 91st Cong., 1st Sess., § 1 (1969). GEICO and Safeco argue that since a "gross negligence" standard is effectively the same as a "reckless disregard" standard, the original bill's "willfulness" standard must have meant a level of culpability higher than "reckless disregard," or there would have been no requirement to show a different state of mind as a condition of the potentially much greater liability; thus, "willfully fails to comply" must have referred to a knowing violation. Although the gross negligence standard was reduced later in the legislative process to simple negligence (as it now appears in § 1681o), the provision for willful liability remains unchanged and so must require knowing action, just as it did originally in the draft of § 1681n.
Perhaps. But Congress may have scaled the standard for actual damages down to simple negligence because it thought gross negligence, being like reckless action, was covered by willfulness. Because this alternative reading is possible, any inference from the drafting sequence is shaky, and certainly no match for the following clue in the text as finally adopted, which points to the traditional understanding of willfulness in the civil sphere.
The phrase in question appears in the preamble sentence of § 1681n(a): "Any person who willfully fails to comply with any requirement imposed under this subchapter
If the companies were right that "willfully" limits liability under § 1681n(a) to knowing violations, the modifier "knowingly" in § 1681n(a)(1)(B) would be superfluous and incongruous; it would have made no sense for Congress to condition the higher damages under § 1681n(a) on knowingly obtaining a report without a permissible purpose if the general threshold of any liability under the section were knowing misconduct. If, on the other hand, "willfully" covers both knowing and reckless disregard of the law, knowing violations are sensibly understood as a more serious subcategory of willful ones, and both the preamble and the subsection have distinct jobs to do. See United States v. Menasche, 348 U.S. 528, 538-539, 75 S.Ct. 513, 99 S.Ct. 615 (1955) ("`[G]ive effect, if possible, to every clause and word of a statute'" (quoting Montclair v. Ramsdell, 107 U.S. 147, 152, 2 S.Ct. 391, 27 S.Ct. 431 (1883))).
The companies make other textual and structural arguments for their view, but none is persuasive. Safeco thinks our reading would lead to the absurd result that one could, with reckless disregard, knowingly obtain a consumer report without a permissible purpose. But this is not so; action falling within the knowing subcategory does not simultaneously fall within the reckless alternative. Then both GEICO and Safeco argue that the reference to acting "knowingly and willfully" in FCRA's criminal enforcement provisions, §§ 1681q and 1681r, indicates that "willfully" cannot include recklessness. But we are now on the criminal side of the law, where the paired modifiers are often found, see, e.g., 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (2000 ed. and Supp. IV) (false statements to federal investigators); 20 U.S.C. § 1097(a) (embezzlement of student loan funds); 18 U.S.C. § 1542 (2000 ed. and Supp. IV) (false statements in a passport application). As we said before, in the criminal law "willfully" typically narrows the otherwise sufficient intent, making the government prove something extra, in contrast to its civil law usage, giving a plaintiff a choice of mental states to show in making a case for liability, see n. 9, supra. The vocabulary of the criminal side of FCRA is consequently beside the point in construing the civil side.
Before getting to the claims that the companies acted recklessly, we have the antecedent question whether either company violated the adverse action notice requirement at all. In both cases, respondent-plaintiffs' claims are premised on initial rates charged for new insurance policies, which are not "adverse" actions unless quoting or charging a first-time premium is "an increase in any charge for ... any insurance, existing or applied for." 15 U.S.C. § 1681a(k)(1)(B)(i).
In Safeco's case, the District Court held that the initial rate for a new insurance policy cannot be an "increase" because there is no prior dealing. The phrase "increase in any charge for ... insurance" is readily understood to mean a change in
The Government takes the part of the Court of Appeals in construing "increase" to reach a first-time rate. It says that regular usage of the term is not as narrow as the District Court thought: the point from which to measure difference can just as easily be understood without referring to prior individual dealing. The Government gives the example of a gas station owner who charges more than the posted price for gas to customers he does not like; it makes sense to say that the owner increases the price and that the driver pays an increased price, even if he never pulled in there for gas before. See Brief for United States as Amicus Curiae 26.
We think the Government's reading has the better fit with the ambitious objective set out in the Act's statement of purpose, which uses expansive terms to describe the adverse effects of unfair and inaccurate credit reporting and the responsibilities of consumer reporting agencies. See § 1681(a) (inaccurate reports "directly impair the efficiency of the banking system"; unfair reporting methods undermine public confidence "essential to the continued functioning of the banking system"; need to "insure" that reporting agencies "exercise their grave responsibilities" fairly, impartially, and with respect for privacy). The descriptions of systemic problem and systemic need as Congress saw them do nothing to suggest that remedies for consumers placed at a disadvantage by unsound credit ratings should be denied to first-time victims, and the legislative histories of FCRA's original enactment and of the 1996 amendment reveal no reason to confine attention to customers and businesses with prior dealings. Quite the contrary.
Although offering the initial rate for new insurance can be an "adverse action," respondent-plaintiffs have another hurdle to clear, for § 1681m(a) calls for notice only when the adverse action is "based in whole or in part on" a credit report. GEICO argues that in order to have adverse action "based on" a credit report, consideration of the report must be a necessary condition for the increased rate. The Government and respondent-plaintiffs do not explicitly take a position on this point.
To the extent there is any disagreement on the issue, we accept GEICO's reading. In common talk, the phrase "based on" indicates a but-for causal relationship and thus a necessary logical condition. Under this most natural reading of § 1681m(a), then, an increased rate is not "based in whole or in part on" the credit report unless the report was a necessary condition of the increase.
As before, there are textual arguments pointing another way. The statute speaks in terms of basing the action "in part" as well as wholly on the credit report, and this phrasing could mean that adverse action is "based on" a credit report whenever the report was considered in the rate-setting process, even without being a necessary condition for the rate increase. But there are good reasons to think Congress preferred GEICO's necessary-condition reading.
If the statute has any claim to lucidity, not all "adverse actions" require notice, only those "based ... on" information in a credit report. Since the statute does not explicitly call for notice when a business acts adversely merely after consulting a report, conditioning the requirement on action "based ... on" a report suggests that the duty to report arises from some practical consequence of reading the report, not merely some subsequent adverse occurrence that would have happened anyway. If the credit report has no identifiable effect on the rate, the consumer has no immediately practical reason to worry about it (unless he has the power to change every other fact that stands between himself and the best possible deal); both the company and the consumer are just where they would have been if the company had never seen the report.
To sum up, the difference required for an increase can be understood without reference to prior dealing (allowing a first-time applicant to sue), and considering the credit report must be a necessary condition for the difference. The remaining step in determining a duty to notify in cases like these is identifying the benchmark for determining whether a first-time rate is a disadvantageous increase. And in dealing with this issue, the pragmatic reading of "based ... on" as a condition necessary to make a practical difference carries a helpful suggestion.
The Government and respondent-plaintiffs argue that the baseline should be the rate that the applicant would have received with the best possible credit score, while GEICO contends it is what the applicant would have had if the company had not taken his credit score into account (the "neutral score" rate GEICO used in Edo's case). We think GEICO has the better position, primarily because its "increase" baseline is more comfortable with the understanding of causation just discussed, which requires notice under § 1681m(a) only when the effect of the credit report on the initial rate offered is necessary to put the consumer in a worse position than other relevant facts would have decreed anyway. If Congress was this concerned with practical consequences when it adopted a "based ... on" causation standard, it presumably thought in equally practical terms when it spoke of an "increase" that must be defined by a baseline to measure from. Congress was therefore more likely concerned with the practical question whether the consumer's rate actually suffered when the company took his credit report into account than the theoretical question whether the consumer would have gotten a better rate with perfect credit.
The Government objects that this reading leaves a loophole, since it keeps first-time applicants who actually deserve better-than-neutral credit scores from getting notice, even when errors in credit reports saddle them with unfair rates. This is true; the neutral-score baseline will leave some consumers without a notice
Since the best rates (the Government's preferred baseline) presumably go only to a minority of consumers, adopting the Government's view would require insurers to send slews of adverse action notices; every young applicant who had yet to establish a gilt-edged credit report, for example, would get a notice that his charge had been "increased" based on his credit report. We think that the consequence of sending out notices on this scale would undercut the obvious policy behind the notice requirement, for notices as common as these would take on the character of formalities, and formalities tend to be ignored. It would get around that new insurance usually comes with an adverse action notice, owing to some legal quirk, and instead of piquing an applicant's interest about the accuracy of his credit record, the commonplace notices would mean just about nothing and go the way of junk mail. Assuming that Congress meant a notice of adverse action to get some attention, we think the cost of closing the loophole would be too high.
While on the subject of hypernotification, we should add a word on another point of practical significance. Although the rate initially offered for new insurance is an "increase" calling for notice if it exceeds the neutral rate, did Congress intend the same baseline to apply if the quoted rate remains the same over a course of dealing, being repeated at each renewal date?
We cannot believe so. Once a consumer has learned that his credit report led the insurer to charge more, he has no need to be told over again with each renewal if his rate has not changed. For that matter, any other construction would probably stretch the word "increase" more than it could bear. Once the gas station owner had charged the customer the above-market price, it would be strange to speak of the same price as an increase every time the customer pulled in. Once buyer and seller have begun a course of dealing, customary usage does demand a change for "increase" to make sense.
In GEICO's case, the initial rate offered to Edo was the one he would have received if his credit score had not been taken into account, and GEICO owed him no adverse action notice under § 1681m(a).
Safeco did not give Burr and Massey any notice because it thought § 1681m(a) did not apply to initial applications, a mistake that left the company in violation of the statute if Burr and Massey received higher rates "based in whole or in part" on their credit reports; if they did, Safeco would be liable to them on a showing of reckless conduct (or worse). The first issue we can forget, however, for although the record does not reliably indicate what rates they would have obtained if their credit reports had not been considered, it is clear enough that if Safeco did violate the statute, the company was not reckless in falling down in its duty.
While "the term recklessness is not self-defining," the common law has generally understood it in the sphere of civil liability as conduct violating an objective standard: action entailing "an unjustifiably high risk of harm that is either known or so obvious that it should be known."
It is this high risk of harm, objectively assessed, that is the essence of recklessness at common law. See Prosser and Keeton § 34, at 213 (recklessness requires "a known or obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow").
There being no indication that Congress had something different in mind, we have no reason to deviate from the common law understanding in applying the statute. See Prupis, 529 U.S., at 500-501, 120 S.Ct. 1608. Thus, a company subject to FCRA does not act in reckless disregard of it unless the action is not only a violation under a reasonable reading of the statute's terms, but shows that the company ran a risk of violating the law substantially greater than the risk associated with a reading that was merely careless.
Here, there is no need to pinpoint the negligence/recklessness line, for Safeco's reading of the statute, albeit erroneous, was not objectively unreasonable. As we said, § 1681a(k)(1)(B)(i) is silent on the point from which to measure "increase." On the rationale that "increase" presupposes prior dealing, Safeco took the definition as excluding initial rate offers for new insurance, and so sent no adverse action notices to Burr and Massey. While we disagree with Safeco's analysis, we recognize
This is not a case in which the business subject to the Act had the benefit of guidance from the courts of appeals or the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that might have warned it away from the view it took. Before these cases, no court of appeals had spoken on the issue, and no authoritative guidance has yet come from the FTC
* * *
The Court of Appeals correctly held that reckless disregard of a requirement of FCRA would qualify as a willful violation within the meaning of § 1681n(a). But there was no need for that court to remand the cases for factual development. GEICO's decision to issue no adverse action notice to Edo was not a violation of § 1681m(a), and Safeco's misreading of the statute was not reckless. The judgments of the Court of Appeals are therefore reversed in both cases, which are remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
Justice STEVENS, with whom Justice GINSBURG joins, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.
While I join the Court's judgment and Parts I, II, III-A, and IV-B of the Court's opinion, I disagree with the reasoning in Parts III-B and III-C, as well as with Part IV-A, which relies on that reasoning.
The Court's contrary position leads to a serious anomaly. As a matter of federal law, companies are free to adopt whatever "neutral" credit scores they want. That score need not (and probably will not) reflect the median consumer credit score. More likely, it will reflect a company's assessment of the creditworthiness of a run-of-the-mill applicant who lacks a credit report. Because those who have yet to develop a credit history are unlikely to be good credit risks, "neutral" credit scores will in many cases be quite low. Yet under the Court's reasoning, only those consumers with credit scores even lower than what may already be a very low "neutral" score will ever receive adverse action notices.
While the Court acknowledges that "the neutral-score baseline will leave some consumers without a notice that might lead to discovering errors," ante, at 2213-2214, it finds this unobjectionable because Congress was likely uninterested in "the theoretical question whether the consumer would have gotten a better rate with perfect credit," Ibid.
Justice THOMAS, with whom Justice ALITO joins, concurring in part.
I agree with the Court's disposition and most of its reasoning. Safeco did not send notices to new customers because it took the position that the initial insurance rate it offered a customer could not be an "increase in any charge for ... insurance" under 15 U.S.C. § 1681a(k)(1)(B)(i). The Court properly holds that regardless of the merits of this interpretation, it is not an unreasonable one, and Safeco therefore did not act willfully. Ante, at 2214-2216. I
Both Safeco and GEICO argue that good-faith reliance on legal advice should render companies immune to claims raised under § 1681n(a). While we do not foreclose this possibility, we need not address the issue here in light of our present holdings.