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Jason Senne v. Village of Palatine

July 11, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 1:10-cv-5434-Matthew F. Kennelly, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Flaum, Circuit Judge.


Before EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge, and FLAUM and RIPPLE, Circuit Judges.

Jason Senne violated a Village of Palatine municipal ordinance when he left his vehicle in a parking space overnight. He returned to his vehicle to find a $20 parking citation on its windshield. Displeased that the citation revealed personal information-such as his driver's license number, address, and weight-Senne initiated a multi-million-dollar class action lawsuit. He maintained, then as now, that the Village's conduct violated the Driver's Privacy Protection Act ("DPPA" or "Act"), 18 U.S.C. § 2721, et seq., which generally makes it unlawful to disclose personal information contained in a motor vehicle record. The DPPA includes a private cause of action against persons- a term defined to include entities such as the Village, 18 U.S.C. § 2725(2)-who impermissibly use someone's personal information. 18 U.S.C. § 2724(a). The distinction between permissible uses and impermissible ones is key, for Senne's effort to recover damages is stymied by a provision of the DPPA that excepts the Village's conduct from the Act's proscriptions. The district court was correct to dismiss this case, and we affirm the judgment in favor of the Village.

I. Background

We accept as true all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint. Reger Dev., LLC v. Nat'l City Bank, 592 F.3d 759, 763 (7th Cir. 2010). In August 2010, Senne violated the Village's overnight parking ban and was issued parking citation number P2794846. The fine was $20. The citation was printed electronically and placed underneath one of the windshield-wipers on his vehicle. Senne discovered it approximately five hours after it was placed on the vehicle. The citation included personal information about Senne-his name, address, driver's license number, date of birth, sex, height, and weight. The in-formation came from motor vehicle records maintained by the Illinois Secretary of State. The directions on the citation stated that the recipient could pay the fine in person or request a hearing. The citation also doubled as an envelope, and the directions said to use it if paying by mail. The complaint does not say if Senne followed those directions, but because personal information appeared on the outside of the citation-turned-envelope, anyone who came across it could have viewed his personal information. Thus, under the Village's practice, personal information gets disclosed once when the ticket is placed on the vehicle, and then a second time if the recipient pays by mail. That is Senne's position, in any event.

The DPPA provides a cause of action against persons and certain entities who disclose "personal information . . . from a motor vehicle record, for a purpose not permitted under" the DPPA. 18 U.S.C. § 2724(a). After Senne received his citation, he filed suit on behalf of himself and other similarly situated individuals. His complaint alleges that the Village, through its officers, violates the DPPA by placing personal information on traffic citations.

The Village filed a motion to dismiss the case, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Village argued that placing a traffic ticket on a windshield does not "disclose" personal information within the contemplation of the DPPA. The Village also argued that, even if it did disclose Senne's personal information, placing a traffic ticket on a vehicle is a "permissible use" under 18 U.S.C. § 2721(b). The district court granted the Village's motion to dismiss on both grounds, providing a short statement of reasons in open court. As explained below, we agree with the second ground, but not the first.

II. Discussion

A district court's ruling on a motion to dismiss is subject to de novo review, as is its interpretation of a federal statute. Heyde v. Pittenger, 633 F.3d 512, 516 (7th Cir. 2011); Pro's Sports Bar & Grill, Inc. v. City of Country Club Hills, 589 F.3d 865, 871 (7th Cir. 2009). Recent cases sketching the contours of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) have centered on whether allegations in a complaint state a "plausible" claim for relief. E.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (teaching that the plausibility requirement "asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully"); Swanson v. Citibank, N.A., 614 F.3d 400, 403-04 (7th Cir. 2010) (teasing out the implications of Iqbal). This case rests more comfortably in Rule 12(b)(6)'s wheelhouse: the Village contends that if one accepts all of Senne's allegations as true, there simply is no legal basis for holding it liable. 5B Charles Alan Wright and Arthur R. Miller, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE § 1355, at 351-52 (3d ed. 2004) (explaining the historic function of the rule and its common-law antecedent); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) advisory committee note (1946 amend.) (stating that Rule 12(b)(6) is "substantially the same as the old demurrer for failure of a pleading to state a cause of action"). In particular, the Village contends that placing a parking ticket on a windshield does not disclose personal information within the meaning of the DPPA. As a backstop, the Village argues that placing a ticket on a windshield is a permissible use of personal information under the Act.

The viability of the Village's arguments turns on the meaning of the DPPA. Our goal is to ascertain Congress's purpose in enacting the legislation. E.g., Milner v. Dep't of Navy, 131 S. Ct. 1259, 1264 (2011) (quoting Park 'N Fly, Inc. v. Dollar Park & Fly, Inc., 469 U.S. 189, 194 (1985)); United States v. N.E. Rosenblum Truck Lines, 315 U.S. 50, 53 (1942). Generally, the plain language of a statute is the best evidence of legislative intent. United States v. Clintwood Elkhorn Mining Co., 553 U.S. 1, 11 (2008) ("The strong presumption that the plain language of the statutes expresses congressional intent is rebutted only in rare and exceptional circumstances.") (quotation marks and alterations omitted); United States v. Ye, 588 F.3d 411, 414-15 (7th Cir. 2009). In looking to the language of the DPPA, we are mindful that statutory interpretation is a "holistic endeavor," which requires courts to look at words and their meaning not in isolation, but in the context of the statutory scheme in which they appear. Koons Buick Pontiac GMC, Inc. v. Nigh, 543 U.S. 50, 60 (2004).

A. Disclosing Personal Information under the DPPA

Title 18, Section 2721(a)(1), of the United States Code, provides that a "State department of motor vehicles, and any officer, employee, or contractor thereof, shall not knowingly disclose or otherwise make available" personal information "obtained by the department in connection with a motor vehicle record." There is no dispute that the information was personal information or that it was obtained "in connection with a motor vehicle record." The parties focus on whether or not placing a citation with readily accessible personal information "discloses" personal information with the meaning of Section 2721.

The Village argues that disclose means to disclose to someone. In the Village's view, a plaintiff must show that personal information was actually handed over to a specific someone, or at least that a specific someone observed the information. The Village's argument, how-ever, puts shackles on the ordinary meaning of the word disclose. The infinitive form of the word means "[t]o open up to the knowledge of others; to make openly known, reveal, declare." 4 THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY 737-38 (2d ed. 1989) (def. 5); see also, e.g., WEBSTER'S NINTH NEW COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY 360 (1990) (defs. 2a, 2c) ("to make known or public" and "to expose to view"); THE RANDOM HOUSE COLLEGE DICTIONARY 378 (Rev. ed. 1980) (defs. 1-3). One may disclose information by handing it over to someone or by exposing it to view. Either will do. The Village does not grapple with the breadth of the word. Nor does it otherwise offer a convincing defense of its position that Congress adopted half of the word's meaning. Respect for the DPPA's text demands that we not blithely accept that view. Imagine if a DMV employee placed a stack of driver records on a city sidewalk. Under the Village's ...

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