Obtaining Motor Vehicle Information Under the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act

04/02/2009 / Chris M. Heffelbower

The United States Supreme Court recently denied certiorari (decided not to a review) a 2008 Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision, which held that a union violated the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act by wrongfully obtaining driver’s license information for the purpose of union activities.

Driver’s Privacy Protection Act

The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (“DPPA”) is a federal law that provides a general prohibition on the release and use of motor vehicle information. The DPPA provides that a “person who knowingly obtains, discloses or uses personal information, from a motor vehicle record, for a purpose not permitted under this chapter shall be liable to the individual to whom the information pertains… .” 18 U.S.C. § 2724(a). The statute lists fourteen specific exceptions to this general prohibition.

Several exceptions are particularly important for employers. As outlined in the statute, motor vehicle information may be obtained:

• For use by any requester if the requester demonstrates that it obtained written consent.

• For use by an employer to obtain or verify information relating to a holder of a commercial driver’s license that is required under chapt. 313, title 49.

• For use in connection with any civil, criminal, administrative, or arbitral proceeding in any federal, state, or local court or agency or before any self-regulatory body.

• For the use in the normal course of business by a legitimate business, but only to verify the accuracy of personal information submitted by the individual to the business, and, if such information as so submitted is not correct, to obtain the correct information, but only for the purposes of preventing fraud by, pursuing legal remedies against, or recovering on a debt or security interest against, the individual.

Pichler v. UNITE

In Pichler v. UNITE, 184 LRRM (BNA) 3278 (3d Cir. 2008), cert. denied (3/23/09), a union (UNITE) decided to launch a union organizing campaign targeting Cintas Corporation. In order to contact employees to organize a union campaign, UNITE compiled a list of names and addresses of presumed Cintas employees by, among other means, using the license plate numbers on cars found in the Cintas parking lot to access information contained in state motor vehicle records relating to those license plates. Using the information obtained in the motor vehicle records, UNITE visited the homes of many of these individuals for the purpose of organizing and unionizing the Cintas employees.

Plaintiffs filed a class action against UNITE for violating the DPPA for unlawfully obtaining and using their motor vehicle records for union activities. The District Court found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded $2500 each (as provided by the statute), and permanently enjoined UNITE from using or disclosing the plaintiffs’ personal information.

On appeal to the Third Circuit, the Court affirmed the award, and remanded to the District Court as to whether the plaintiffs may be entitled to a jury trial on the issue of punitive damages. The Court held, “Because UNITE obtained and used the confidential information for an impermissible purpose—union organizing—it does not matter what other permissible purpose UNITE may have had.” UNITE appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but the Court denied to hear the case.

What this decision means for employers

The DPPA is a little known statute that may have serious legal consequences for employers if not properly followed. If your Company routinely uses motor vehicle information for the purposes of hiring decisions or for other business purposes, ensure that your use is within one of the exceptions in the statute. If your Company needs assistance in determining compliance with the DPPA, please contact our Labor and Employment attorneys.