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Beware of blurbs about FCRA cases

September 7, 2012

The August 17, 2012 edition of West’s Pennsylvania Reporter, which summarizes recent judicial decisions in my part of the country, just came around the office.  It indicated that the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently held that a “consumer did not sustain any damages under Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) due to lost credit opportunities.’  The case is Van Veen v. Equifax, 844 F. Supp. 2d. 599 (E.D. Pa. 2012).  That piqued my interest, as I read it to imply that a court gave a consumer nothing because he hadn’t been harmed.

In reading the case itself, it turns out that there’s no basis for such an implication.  The court held that Dennis Van Veen had a colorable legal claim against AT&T for violating the FCRA (he claimed that it refused to delete an account that he never opened, but which AT&T reported to Experian).  But did AT&T harm Mr. Van Veen by doing this?  The court didn’t say “no”; it said “maybe and no.”  It found that Mr. Van Veen’s only evidence of lost credit opportunities or harm to credit reputation had to do with a December 2008 loan that he applied for and received.  Because he didn’t raise a dispute about the AT&T account until March 2009, the court held – I think correctly – that its refusal to resolve his dispute on his terms caused him harm.

However, the court did what almost every court in the country does – it held that even though he had no firm evidence of emotional distress, merely alleging it was enough to give him the right to plead his case to a jury and let it decide the extent to which his distress was genuine.

Conclusion:  it’s hard for consumers to prove actual financial losses due to FCRA violations, but fairly easy for them to get to the jury on claims of emotional distress.  This isn’t news, but the Van Veen decision does a nice job of illustrating it.

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