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Schaer Successfully Litigates Federal Privacy Class Action To Verdict in Eastern District of Pennsylvania

July 9, 2019

Two months before trial, Ted Schaer, a shareholder at Zarwin Baum was asked by a colleague at another firm to serve as lead counsel in a Federal Class Action that was already in the process of litigation for seven years involving 67,000 violations of the Pennsylvania Criminal History Records Information Act. The case involved the far-reaching implications of the Bucks County Department of Corrections’ decision to upload to the internet the criminal histories of every individual who was arrested in Bucks County from 1938 to 2013. The purpose was to create an inmate lookup tool that contained arrest photos, FBI numbers, all charges and other identifiable descriptors. 

At trial, Schaer explained to the jury the potential harm that could come from this inmate lookup tool. These harms included criminal stigmatization leading to loss of employment and housing opportunities, expunged records being made public, and cyber security measures failing to prevent the taking of data by illicit websites.  Thousands of class members were never convicted of any crime, but because they were arrested, their records were released as part of the lookup tool. Many class members were charged with offenses at the time of their arrest but later were reduced or dismissed.  Many members thought that their criminal records were to be expunged but weren’t. The inmate lookup tool violated state law and unfairly created a profile of criminal behavior for thousands of people who were ultimately convicted of no offense or  for only very minor offenses.

The Honorable Wendy Beetlestone presided over the case and had already ruled that Bucks County’s actions violated CHRIA. Ted was tasked with demonstrating to a federal jury that the violation was “willful”. The result of a willful violation according to CHRIA are sanctions of at least $1,000 per violation. The jury came back in less than three hours and found that Bucks County’s conduct was willful and awarded each class member $1,000. This jury verdict creates potential exposure of $67,000,000 to Bucks County. This landmark verdict is the largest returned against a governmental agency for violation of privacy and inadequate cyber security.  More importantly, this verdict demonstrated to all the Counties in this Commonwealth that the privacy of its citizens and individuals who may be arrested is important and must be treated with due care.

For additional information please contact Ted Schaer at tmschaer@zarwin.com.  


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