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U.S. high court declines to hear privacy lawsuit against Thomson Reuters

By Lawrence Hurley and David Ingram

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider whether a unit of Thomson Reuters Corp can obtain and sell information on drivers provided by state agencies without violating a federal privacy law.

The decision not to hear the matter represented a win for the commercialization of publicly available information, although U.S. law remains mixed on the subject.

A class action lawsuit against West Publishing Corp, which, like the Reuters news agency, is part of Thomson Reuters, alleged that the practice of acquiring and selling the data violated the Driver's Privacy Protection Act.

The plaintiffs, holders of state identity cards, said that West had obtained such information directly from 29 states and the District of Columbia and, in some instances, from other entities that already had acquired it.

A federal judge in Missouri said the case could go ahead but was reversed by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in an April ruling. Monday's Supreme Court ruling effectively allows the appeals court ruling to stand.

Under federal law, certain types of information are permitted to be disclosed by state agencies and, in some cases, re-sold by third parties like West.

West said it obtained the records purely for the uses permitted under the law. The information can, for example, be provided to insurance companies pursuing claims or to an employer seeking to verify if a worker has a valid commercial driver's license.

In seeking the high court's attention, the plaintiffs cited a Supreme Court ruling from June that addressed the same federal law.

In that case, the Supreme Court held on a 5-4 vote that lawyers cannot gather personal information about drivers from state databases when seeking plaintiffs for potential lawsuits. The case hinged on language in the law that allows access to the data for lawyers pursuing an "investigation in anticipation of litigation."

West's lawyers played down the significance of that ruling in court papers, saying it dealt with a different section of the law.

Thomson Reuters spokesman John Shaughnessy said in a statement that the company was pleased with the high court's decision. "We believe the use of driver's license and motor vehicle information within accepted guidelines can be of great value in supporting the work of law enforcement, investigative, legal and government professionals," he said.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case is Johnson v. West Publishing Corp, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-218.

(Editing by Howard Goller)

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