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Robinson v. United States Department of Education

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

March 6, 2019

ANTHONY ROBINSON, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, Defendant-Appellee, and PENNSYLVANIA HIGHER EDUCATION ASSISTANCE AGENCY, d/b/a Fed Loan Servicing; EQUIFAX INFORMATION SERVICES, LLC; EXPERIAN INFORMATION SOLUTIONS, INC.; TRANS UNION, LLC, Defendants.

          Argued: January 29, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court No. 8:15-cv-00079-GJH for the District of Maryland, at Greenbelt. George Jarrod Hazel, District Judge.

         ARGUED:

          Quinn Breece Lobato, LOBATO LAW LLC, Lanham, Maryland, for Appellant.

          Sarah Wendy Carroll, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Joseph H. Hunt, Assistant Attorney General, Mark B. Stern, Civil Division, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C.; Robert K. Hur, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

          Before WILKINSON, DIAZ, and FLOYD, Circuit Judges.

          WILKINSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         Appellant Anthony Robinson appeals the dismissal of his lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education for violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The district court found that it lacked jurisdiction over the claim because Congress had not waived sovereign immunity for suits under FCRA. It is settled law that a waiver of sovereign immunity must be unambiguous and unequivocal. Because the purported waiver here falls well short of that standard, we affirm.

         I.

         This appeal arises from Robinson's claims against the Big Three credit reporting agencies-Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion-the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, and the U.S. Department of Education. The suit related to their treatment of an allegedly fraudulent student loan in Robinson's name. As all claims against the nonfederal defendants have now run their course, only Robinson's FCRA claims against the Department of Education remain on appeal.

         The Department administers the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, through which it provides loans to students and parents for postsecondary education costs. Robinson's complaint detailed how the Department of Education "directly or indirectly causes credit information to be furnished to . . . consumer reporting agencies." J.A. 13, ¶ 7 (Amended Complaint). Robinson alleged that he "discovered that there were Direct Loan student loan accounts being reported to his Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union credit reports," J.A. 14, ¶ 8, even though he did not "authorize a student loan account to be opened in his name," id. ¶ 9. Appellant asserted that he "has been disputing the Direct Loan accounts," "[s]ince November 2011 or earlier." Id. ¶ 10; see also J.A. 14-15, ¶¶ 11-14. In this action, he alleged that the Department violated FCRA, specifically 15 U.S.C. § 1681s-2(b), "by failing to fully and properly investigate [Appellant's] disputes," J.A. 17, ¶ 27, and "failing to review all relevant information" related to his claim, id. ¶ 28. The complaint brought claims under 15 U.S.C. §§ 1681n and 1681o, which provide civil causes of action for willful and negligent FCRA violations, respectively.

         The Department filed a motion to dismiss for want of subject matter jurisdiction based on sovereign immunity. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). After comparing FCRA's language to several recognized waivers of sovereign immunity, the district court reasoned that FCRA's language did not unequivocally and unambiguously waive sovereign immunity. Robinson v. Pa. Higher Educ. Assistance Agency, No. GJH-15-0079, 2017 WL 1277429 (D. Md. Apr. 3, 2017). According to the district court, the plaintiff's reading of the waiver would, among other things, absurdly expose the federal government to criminal prosecutions. The court thus granted the government's motion and dismissed Robinson's claims against the Department. Id. Robinson asked ...


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