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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

11th Circuit vacates punitive damages award against CRA for FCRA violation

Courts Appellate Eleventh Circuit FCRA Consumer Reporting Agency

Courts

On June 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated a magistrate judge’s final judgment in an FCRA action, concluding that there was no competent proof of a willful violation of the Act on the part of a consumer reporting agency (CRA). According to the opinion, a consumer brought an action against the CRA and other defendants alleging, among other things, that the CRA “negligently and willfully” violated the FCRA by not reinvestigating an item on his credit report he alleged was reported in error. Approximately 75 days after a small claims debt against the consumer was dismissed with prejudice, the consumer and his attorney ran his credit report and finding the debt still reported, wrote to the CRA with the dismissal order and requested that it reinvestigate the debt listing and remove it. The CRA diverted the letter under its suspicious mail policy for unknown reasons (since the CRA did not have a system to record the reason a letter was marked as suspicious), and sent a letter to the consumer informing him that it had determined the letter was suspicious and was not sent by him, but suggesting he call if he believed his credit report was in error. Less than two months later, the CRA removed the credit line after receiving a communication from the debt holder, but the consumer had already filed the action five days prior to that time. A jury trial found that the CRA’s “negligent failure to reinvestigate” caused harm to the consumer and awarded $5,000 in compensatory damages and further concluded that the violation of the FCRA was willful, assessing $3 million in punitive damages. Subsequently, the magistrate judge remitted the punitive damages to $490,000 on due process principles.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit vacated the magistrate judge’s final judgment on the willfulness claim, noting that the consumer “offered no evidence of a broad or systemic problem with [the CRA]’s suspicious mail policy,” and that the consumer did not establish by clear and convincing evidence that the CRA “ran an unjustifiably high risk of violating its duties under the FCRA.” Moreover, the actions of the CRA “had a foundation in the statutory text,” even if the policy’s application was negligent when applied to the consumer. Because the appellate court concluded the violation was not willful, the punitive damages judgment was eliminated.

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