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Do you have a right to privacy in your address?

March 16, 2013

By Kristin Hall

When it comes to privacy, we know that the home is a sacred space. But is your address sacred as well? How about your ZIP code? Recent litigation in Massachusetts, California, and Pennsylvania is signaling that the answer to that question may depend on where you live.

Massachusetts: ZIP Codes Protected Under Privacy Interests

Massachusetts and a handful of other states (including, notably, California) have made it unlawful for retailers to collect “personal identification information” (or “PII”) from consumers who pay using a credit card. Under those statutes, PII can mean a customer’s phone number or address (or components thereof). A customer, Melissa Tyler, sued Michaels Stores in federal court in Massachusetts, claiming that Michaels illegally requested her ZIP code prior to completing several transactions, and that Michaels used that information to look up her street address and send her marketing materials.

, the statute was solely intended to prevent fraud against consumers—namely identity theft—and did not create a “free standing privacy right” in a consumer’s PII. Because Tyler’s identity had not been stolen, and Michaels had not broken any other laws by looking up her mailing address, the court held that Tyler was not entitled to any damages under Massachusetts law.

After the federal court dismissed Tyler’s case, she asked the state’s high court to weigh in. In a surprising turn,

. The state court said that the Massachusetts statute had a dual purpose—to prevent credit card fraud and to protect consumer privacy. Moreover, the state court continued, the latter interest—privacy protection—was actually the primary purpose of the statute. Thus, Tyler’s receipt of unwanted marketing materials was the sort of injury that could be compensated under Massachusetts law.

California: Limited Privacy Protection for ZIP Codes

The Massachusetts high court’s interpretation is somewhat aligned with the California Supreme Court’s view on its version of the ZIP code law, the Song-Beverly Credit Card Act.

that the statute’s “overriding purpose ‘was to protect the personal privacy of consumers who pay for transactions with credit cards.’” , however, the Court said that the statute had dual fraud-prevention and consumer-privacy purposes (like the Massachusetts statute). But unlike the Massachusetts state court, which said that privacy-protection was the statute’s main purpose, the California court said that these privacy interests should yield if preventing merchants from verifying customer identity would place them at risk of being victimized by credit card fraud.

The state of play with regard to home address privacy may soon change in California. In County of Los Angeles v. Los Angeles County Employee Relations Commission, Case No. S191944, the Court will address whether public employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their personal contact information.

The case arose in the context of a 2006 labor negotiation, in which a union asked Los Angeles County to hand over the names, addresses and home phone numbers of county employees the union nominally represented, but who had not formally joined the union. The union claimed it needed the information in order to contact the employees with required annual notices, and for recruitment purposes.

that the employees’ contact information was protected under the right to privacy that is recognized in the California constitution, the union appealed. The case was argued before the California Supreme Court on March 5th and is currently under submission.

Pennsylvania: Residential Addresses Not Protected Under the State Constitution

Last month,

that “there is no constitutional right to privacy in one’s home address under the Pennsylvania Constitution.” The case arose after the plaintiff, Mel Marin, attempted to register as a candidate in the 2010 congressional election. Marin was denied certification after he refused to provide his home address on the nomination petition and candidate’s affidavit, which was required under the Pennsylvania Election Code. Marin claimed that this requirement was an unconstitutional violation of his right to privacy in his home address. Quoting its prior precedent, the court said that the disclosure of addresses is now so commonplace that there cannot be a reasonable expectation of privacy in one’s address:

Whether registering to vote, applying for a driver’s license, applying for a job, opening a bank account, paying taxes, etc., it is all but impossible to live in our current society without repeated disclosure of one’s name and address, both privately and publicly. There is nothing nefarious in such disclosures. An individual’s name and address, by themselves, reveal nothing about one’s personal, private affairs.

What do you think—did the Pennsylvania court get it right? Perhaps a more appropriate question is: would you rather live in Massachusetts, California, or Pennsylvania?

Caveat Vendor is Paul Hastings' Consumer Issues blog. We welcome your feedback. Please contact our blog editor with any thoughts or suggestions.