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In a decision that could change the way some union organizers do business, a federal judge has certified a class action suit under the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 brought by a group of factory workers who claim that a union illegally obtained their home addresses by copying their license plates in the company parking lot. In his 74-page opinion in Pichler v. UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees AFL-CIO), Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge Stewart Dalzell rejected a defense argument that since the DPPA requires proof of “actual damages,” the workers should not be allowed to proceed as a class. Instead, Dalzell concluded that the DPPA contains no such requirement of actual damages and that “a plaintiff may recover liquidated damages of $2,500 under the DPPA even if she fails to prove actual damages.” As a result, Dalzell found that all of the workers whose license plates were used by UNITE to obtain personal information share common legal issues that are properly handled in a class action. The ruling is a victory for plaintiffs attorneys Paul R. Rosen, Beth Lincow Cole, James Bucci, David B. Picker and Bruce Bellingham of Spector Gadon & Rosen. The DPPA was passed in 1994 after the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a stalker who obtained her address from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, the law prohibits state officials from sharing the personal information they collect when administering driver’s licenses unless they obtain a person’s “express consent” to do so. The law also mandates that states keep the information private in most circumstances. Now key sections of the law — those that prohibit anyone from using motor vehicle records to obtain personal information — are proving to be an agent for change in the ongoing battles between industry and union organizers. Testimony in the Pichler case shows that until the lawsuit was filed, it was a common practice for some union organizers to use license plates in company parking lots to gather the home addresses of workers. Organizers testified that employees often won’t speak with them on the company’s premises because they fear that management will retaliate against any employees who consort with the union. In a prior opinion, Dalzell rejected the argument that union organizers should be exempted from the DPPA because it conflicts with their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Dalzell concluded that the National Labor Relations Board “has no jurisdiction — exclusive or otherwise — over the plaintiffs’ DPPA claim because Congress has not authorized it to enforce that statute.” Lawyers for the union argued that courts have long approved of unions’ using information from motor vehicle records to contact employees during organizing campaigns. Dalzell rejected the argument, saying the union was in effect arguing that since the DPPA’s legislative history never mentions the law’s potential effects on this practice, the courts should infer that Congress intended not to prohibit it. “We may well agree that Congress probably did not consider carefully the effect that the DPPA would have on union organizing. But it is quite another matter to use such speculation as a basis upon which to infer that Congress affirmatively intended for the unions’ alleged conduct to be exempt from the DPPA,” Dalzell wrote. According to court papers, UNITE set its sights on unionizing employees of Cintas Corp., a manufacturer of corporate uniforms, restroom supplies, and first aid and safety products. Cintas operates 351 facilities that employ more than 28,000 people in the United States and Canada. Since the fall of 2002, UNITE has waged a campaign to educate Cintas employees about how to protect their rights under federal and state law. In court papers, the union claims it was concerned with what it characterizes as Cintas’s low wages, poor benefits, unsafe working conditions, discriminatory practices, and violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Family Medical Leave Act and workers’ compensation laws. UNITE officials have testified that it was critically important to them that the Cintas campaign succeed because they believed Cintas’s practices were holding down labor standards throughout the laundry industry – one of UNITE’s key businesses. In the opinion, Dalzell outlined UNITE’s efforts to compile a list of Cintas employees’ home addresses, including the use of motor vehicle records. At the Cintas’s plant in Emmaus, UNITE organizers recorded the license plate numbers of the vehicles parked in the lot and then gave the numbers to a private investigator who, in turn, hired Pennsylvania Auto License Brokers to access home addresses from state databases. But when UNITE began visiting Cintas workers at their homes, the plan backfired. Some workers complained to management, and the company hired lawyers from Spector Gadon & Rosen to investigate whether the workers’ privacy rights had been violated. Now Dalzell has certified the case as a class action after finding that the DPPA was designed to provide liquidated damages to any plaintiff whose personal information was improperly obtained through motor vehicle records. Defense lawyers argued that the wording of the statute shows that a defendant is liable only if the violation was committed with knowledge of its illegality. Dalzell disagreed, saying such a ruling would mean that “every defendant would get at least one free bite at the violation-of-privacy apple.” “After all,” Dalzell wrote, “anyone could claim that he did not ‘know’ his purpose to be impermissible until a court interpreted the DPPA to proscribe that purpose.” The defense lawyers, Dalzell said, “have not provided any evidence that Congress intended such a strange result.” In a ruling that defined the reach of the law, Dalzell wrote: “We hold that, to be eligible to recover under the DPPA, a plaintiff must prove that (1) the defendant knowingly obtained, disclosed, or used personal information from her motor vehicle records; and (2) the purpose of such obtaining, disclosure, or use was not permissible. The plaintiff need not show that the defendant knew that the obtaining, disclosure, or use was impermissible.” In his order, Dalzell certified the case as a class action on behalf of anyone “whose license plate numbers were used by UNITE, directly or indirectly, individually or jointly, as part of an effort to knowingly obtain, use and/or disclose personal information from motor vehicle records between July 1, 2002 and Aug. 2, 2004.” UNITE is represented by attorneys Thomas M. Kennedy, Dennis Torreggiani and Susan M. Jennik of Kennedy Schwartz & Cure in New York, and Laurence M. Goodman and Mark Featherman of Willig Williams & Davidson in Philadelphia.

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