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Court to weigh lawyers’ rights to driving records

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has stepped into a dispute over whether lawyers can obtain personal information from driver license records to recruit clients for lawsuits, despite a federal privacy law intended to shield motor vehicle records.

The justices agreed Tuesday to hear an appeal from three South Carolinians who objected to solicitations from lawyers to join a lawsuit against car dealers. Among the lawyers named in the Supreme Court appeal is Richard Harpootlian, who also is chairman of the South Carolina Democratic party.

At issue is whether lawyers may use information gleaned from South Carolina driver records, which they obtained by filing open records requests. A federal law aimed at protecting driver records has an exception for lawsuits and the court will determine whether the lawyers’ actions qualify.

The court will review a decision from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that lawyers did not violate the Act when they obtained state driving records for the purpose of identifying plaintiffs for potential class actions.

In that case, South Carolina lawyers instituted multiple consumer class actions against car dealerships in the state. The lawsuits claimed that the dealerships violated state law by collecting certain fees from car buyers.

In order to identify those with potential claims, the defendants obtained from the state department of motor vehicles the names, addresses, telephone numbers and car purchase information of thousands of car buyers.

Car buyers who received mailings from the lawyers regarding the dealership litigation filed suit. They alleged that the defendants violated the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act by obtaining and using their personal information without their consent.

A U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the lawyers, dismissing the suit.

The 4th Circuit agreed, concluding that the defendants’ acquisition and use of the personal information in this case was permitted under the Act’s litigation exception.

“[A]lthough the record supports the [plaintiffs’] contention that the [defendants] engaged in solicitation, i.e., that they induced the DMV to disclose the [plaintiffs’] personal information in the absence of the [plaintiffs’] consent, because the solicitation was entirely consistent with state law, was integral to, and was, indeed, inextricably intertwined with the [defendants’] permissible use of the [plaintiffs’] personal information pursuant to the litigation exception, the [plaintiffs’] claims fail as a matter of law,” the court said.

It noted a similar decision from the 11th Circuit.

A decision from the U.S. Supreme Court is expected later this term.

The case is Maracich v. Spears, No. 12-25. The case below is 675 F.3d 281 (4th Cir. 2012).

With reporting by The Associated Press and The Daily Record’s sister paper, Lawyers USA.