The Class Action Weekly Wire – Episode 63: Key Developments In FCRA Class Action Litigation

Duane Morris Takeaway:
This week’s episode of the Class Action Weekly Wire features Duane Morris partner Jerry Maatman and associates Emilee Crowther and Derek Franklin with their discussion of key rulings and trends in class action litigation under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”).

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Episode Transcript

Jerry Maatman: Thank you and welcome loyal blog readers and listeners to our next episode of the Weekly podcast series that we call the class Action weekly wire. My name is Jerry Maatman, and I’m a partner at Duane Morris and joining me today are my colleagues, Derek Franklin and Emilee Crowther, and we’re here to talk about Fair Credit Reporting Act class action litigation. Emilee and Derek, can you tell me a little bit about what is going on in this space in terms of the history of the FCRA?

Emilee Crowther: Absolutely, Jerry, and thanks for having me today. The stated purpose of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, or the FCRA, is to ensure that consumer reporting agencies, exercise their important responsibilities with fairness, impartiality, and a respect for the consumer’s right to privacy. It requires consumer reporting agencies and entities, obtaining consumer reports to follow reasonable procedures, to assure maximum possible accuracy of consumer reports. Courts have often noted that FCRA violations lend themselves to resolution through class action, litigation, and FCRA. Class actions have increased partially as a result of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act, or the FACTA, amendments which require that a consumer who is afforded less favorable treatment and reliance on her credit report be provided an adverse action notice.

Derek Franklin: And in FCRA cases in 2023, the class action plaintiffs’ bar continued to look for any failure of an employer to provide disclosures or obtain proper authorization from an applicant. Although these authorization and disclosure requirements may appear to be relatively straightforward, case law has created additional requirements that may not be as obvious from a plain reading of the FCRA. While employers must be vigilant in their efforts to avoid running afoul of the FCRA authorization and disclosure requirements, the third-party agencies they obtain consumer reports from must also take active steps to ensure that they provide accurate reports. The plaintiffs’ bar is quick to investigate violations of these provisions and bring Rule 23 class actions against CRAs.

Jerry: I know that compliance with the FCRA is not for the faint of heart, and it’s certainly spiked quite a bit of class action litigation in terms of our annual report. Are there some significant guideposts in the case law in terms of FCRA class actions?

Emilee: So, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez substantially limited FCRA class actions by making it clear that only consumers who have “been concretely harmed by a defendant’s statutory violation may sue that private defendant over that [FCRA] violation in federal court.” In TransUnion, the defendant credit reporting agency generated thousands of consumer credit reports which mistakenly match the consumers’ names with the names of people on the list of individuals who threaten America’s national security. However, the Supreme Court only allowed this case to proceed for plaintiffs whose false reports had been provided to third-party creditors. According to the Supreme Court, if the third-party creditors did not receive the potentially defamatory reports, then the individuals did not suffer from a concrete injury under the FCRA.

Jerry: Well, the TransUnion case certainly has created quite a tidal wave of defenses and case law that have interpreted just what an “injury-in-fact” may be. How has that resulted in terms of FCRA class certification rulings and motions to dismiss over the past year?

Derek: In 2023, all the three major CRAs in the United States – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – had to litigate at least one FCRA class action concerning allegedly inaccurate or incomplete credit reports. In one such case brought against Equifax in the Us. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, the court granted in part a motion to dismiss as to a state law negligence claim and injunctive relief under the FCRA. But the court denied in part the motion to strike the class action allegations allowing the plaintiffs’ claim to proceed. The court noted that the plaintiffs could not identify a statutory or common law duty of care owed to the plaintiffs by Equifax. And as to the FCRA claim, the court stated that the case is cited by Equifax, centered on instances where a correctly reported credit score was misleading, which was distinguishable from its position, that it was not “objectively unreasonable” for the company to interpret federal law as being inapplicable to credit scores. The ruling is a good roadmap for defendants involved in FCRA class action litigation.

Emilee: Another case, titled Nelson, et al. v. Experian Information Solutions, Inc., the court examined what documents and information would reasonably be “in a consumer’s file” underneath the FCRA. The plaintiff reviewed her credit report and discovered that it contained inaccurate personal identification information, including two addresses that weren’t hers, her maiden name was misspelled, and the last digit of her social security number was incorrect. She contacted Experian to request the information be changed and Experian updated all but one of the incorrect addresses because it was associated with an open credit account. The plaintiff ended up filing a class action against Experian, alleging that Experian violated the FCRA by providing inaccurate personal identification information on her credit report and failing to correct the inaccurate information. Experian filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that although the FCRA’s disclosure provision requires credit reporting agencies to disclose “all information in a consumer’s file” the word “any” in “any item of information contained in a consumer’s file” is limited to information that might be, or has been, furnished consumer report. Experian contended that since personal identification information, like a consumer’s name, address, and social security number, do not bear on an individual’s credit worthiness, such information did not itself constitute a credit report. The court rejected this argument, and found that the FCRA’s plain language “forbid the use of credit worthiness as a limitation on information contained in both the consumer’s credit report and [in the] consumer’s credit file.” However, the court ended up holding that the existence of a duty to reinvestigate was “not enough to prove a violation of the FCRA” – that the plaintiff also had to establish that Experian, either negligently or willfully, failed to satisfy its duty to reinvestigate by showing that Experian’s interpretation of the FCRA was objectively unreasonable. The court ruled that no jury could find that Experian negligently or willfully violated the FCRA, and that Experian’s interpretation of the FCRA was objectively reasonable. Thus, the court granted Experian’s motion for summary judgment.

Jerry: Those are key cases and a great overview of what corporate counsel are facing here. Certainly the business model of plaintiffs’ counsel is to file the class action, certify the class action, and then monetize it through settlements. How did the plaintiffs’ bar do in terms of monetizing significant FCRA settlements on a class-wide basis over the past year?

Derek: Jerry, in terms of securing high settlements – the plaintiffs’ bar did not do nearly as well in 2023 as in 2022. In 2023, the top 10 FCRA, FDPCA, and FACTA settlements totaled $100.15 million. This was a significant decrease from the prior year, where the top 10 class action settlements totaled $210.11 million.

Jerry: Still a lot of money, and certainly corporate counsel need to be on guard in terms of compliance efforts in this area. What are your thoughts on the takeaways given the case law, given the settlements, in terms of what corporate counsel should have in their toolkit for FCRA compliance?

Emilee: Well, Jerry, it’s very important for consumer reporting agencies to implement policies and procedures that furnish accurate reports. Systemic issues in a reporting system provide the plaintiffs’ class action bar with ample evidence to argue that class certification is justified, regardless of whether there was actual harm to many consumers.

Derek: And to add on to that – good document retention can save the day in FCRA litigation. While various cases involve the generation of consumer reports for tenant applicants, they are just as applicable to consumer reports generated for employee applicants and the plaintiffs’ class action bar will continue to press legal envelope.

Jerry: Well, thank you, Emilee, and thank you, Derek, for your thought leadership in this area. And loyal blog readers and listeners, thank you for joining us for this week’s installment of the Class Action Weekly Wire.

Emilee: Thank you, Jerry, for having us, and thank you loyal listeners.

Derek: Thank you, everyone.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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