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Woman wins historic jury verdict from Equifax

The credit-reporting group failed to fix egregious errors.

By RICHARD BURNETT

SENTINEL STAFF WRITER

Angela P. Williams says she got nothing but a runaround from Equifax as she tried for more than a decade to clear up an identity mix-up that ruined her credit. Now she’s hitting the credit-reporting giant where it hurts: on the bottom line.

An Orlando jury awarded Williams a multimillion-dollar verdict against Equifax for years of failing to correct dramatic errors in Williams’ credit report that led to her credit score being trashed.

Atlanta-based Equifax must pay the medical-transcription worker $219,000 in actual damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages for negligent violation of federal credit reporting laws, according to the verdict Friday in state Circuit Court in Orlando.

It is the largest punitive-damages award ever against Equifax, which would not comment on the case. An appeal is expected.

Williams, who recently moved from Brevard County to the Jacksonville area, said she was surprised but gratified by the decision.

“This has been a nightmare,” she said Monday. “It’s not so much about the money, but about the punishment. I know I’m not the only one that has gone through this. But people need to know their rights. They need to check their credit report and try to be in charge of their credit history.”

The verdict was a big vote of confidence for people who wrestle with a flawed credit-reporting system and take on big corporations that refuse to acknowledge mistakes, said Steven Fahlgren, a Florida-based consumer lawyer who represents Williams.

“We’ve fought this battle for years, and, despite all the evidence, Equifax denied almost until the end that there were any mistakes in my client’s credit file,” he said. “But I’m so proud that the jury saw the evidence for what it was. This is a great victory for consumers.”

At trial, her lawyers — including co-counsel Robert Sola of Portland, Ore. — showed how Equifax repeatedly confused Williams with someone who had a similar name but whose credit file was rife with bad debt.

Though Williams disputed and debunked the errors numerous times, Equifax kept passing along the false information, ruining her credit, she testified. After eight years of trying to resolve the issue, she sued the company in 2003. Two earlier defendants — Experian and American Recovery Systems — settled the case out of court.

In the meantime, Williams, 37, who works for Orlando Foot & Ankle Clinic, from the Jacksonville area, was denied student loans, credit-card accounts, ATM cards and other financial applications, she said. She also couldn’t apply for a mortgage, fearing more recurrence of the credit problems.

“When this all began [in 1994], I didn’t realize it would be years until things got straightened out,” she said. “But now I still don’t have the confidence to go and apply for credit. I’m scared of the denials. And I’m a little leery of the credit-reporting agencies. I don’t trust them.”

There has been a spate of consumer cases against the largest credit-reporting operations in recent years, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in judgments, said Evan Hendricks, publisher of Privacy Times, a newsletter that tracks such issues.

Too often, people have been victimized by the companies’ streamlined, automated process of “investigating” alleged credit-file errors, he said. The process is set up to save money and boost profits rather than protect consumers, said Hendricks, an author who testified in the Williams case.

“If the Williams judgment gets reduced — as many of them do on appeal — it could be seen by the company as just a cost of doing business and no real reason to change,” he said. “But if it is upheld, it is a robust notice that what they were doing isn’t good enough. And finally after all these years, they may agree to some common sense changes to avoid this sort of thing.”

As for Williams, she’s just not convinced it is all over.

“I’m not sure this will bring resolution,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of confidence especially in Equifax, after so many years of having problems. I’m just not confident that I won’t have to go through this again.”

Richard Burnett can be reached at 407-420-5256 or

rburnett@orlandosentinel.com.

See the Article as it appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday, November 4th, 2007

Article Page 1   ~   Article Page 2


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