-By Stan V. Smith, PhD & Kyle Lauterhahn
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“Who steals my purse steals trash. ‘Tis something–nothing; ‘Twas mine, ‘tis his and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.” – Othello
Shakespeare’s character Iago offers this wisdom that has uncanny applications to modern consumer law. No one in William Shakespeare’s time was denied an auto Loan due to false credit reporting or was extended a mortgage loan that the lender knew the individual could never repay, leading to a foreclosure. But Shakespeare would still understand the damage done to one’s reputation. In modern times, a quality financial reputation – a good credit record – is very valuable, and one can become literally “poor indeed” when this is lost.
In November 2017, I had the privilege of speaking to many legal colleagues at the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) Consumer Rights Litigation Conference in Washington, D.C. In a discussion session following the keynote speech by Senator Elizabeth Warren, I shared my research and experience regarding credit damage, the types of loses that can be claimed, and how these claims are to be valued. Here I share this knowledge with you.
Credit damage can arise from a variety of circumstances. Mistakes by consumer reporting agencies (CRAs, or credit bureaus) and by credit or information furnishers (Banks, credit card companies, etc.) result in credit damage to innocent Americans every day. Identity theft or identity confusion resulting in merged records is also a common cause of credit damage. Many errors and problems can arise from credit reporting agencies themselves. A recent revision of Equifax’s data breach assessment now shows a theft of over 143 million Social Security numbers, and counting. People seek credit damage compensation as a result of banks wrongfully extending mortgages during the credit boom that they could not afford, and upon which they subsequently have defaulted and have lost in foreclosure. Failure of banks to offer government-financed mortgage modifications for which applicants qualify can result in excess costs and credit damage. Credit damage also frequently occurs during a divorce when one party ruins the credit history of another on jointly held credit cards or loans. Separating legal responsibility for mortgage payments on a jointly owned house and on other jointly held credit can be problematic when the parties are in emotional and perhaps financial adversity. Further, people can also sustain credit damage when they are injured, sick or wrongfully discharged, and do not work for a protracted period, reaching a point where they cannot pay their bills.
Sometimes credit damage arises in unique and unpredictable ways. One plaintiff paid fire insurance premiums to a bank, along with the mortgage payments on his home. A bank employee embezzled the funds and never made payment on the insurance policy. When the house burned down, the owner stopped making mortgage payments and sued the bank to recover the uninsured losses. The bank disputed the claim and foreclosed on his house. This was reported to the credit bureaus resulting is significant damage to his credit. The damage lasted during several years of litigation, but the reported foreclosure was eventually reversed.
Often, credit damage is reversible. Innocent error can be often corrected, even if not easily. But frequently, even though caused wrongfully and through no fault of the consumer, credit damage may occur and cannot be reversed, except by the passage of time, and sometimes not even then. If a person defaults on a mortgage through a breach of contract by another, the report cannot be reversed. The credit bureaus cannot erase or reverse the correct reporting of a foreclosure or a bankruptcy even if the consumer wins a lawsuit against the tortfeasor that caused this. Foreclosures, late payments, bad debt in collection, and other derogatory information, unless put on in error, remains on a credit report for seven years; bankruptcy remains for ten years. Tax liens remain on a credit report as derogatory information for seven years after they have been paid. If the tax lien has not been paid, Equifax and TransUnion will show the unpaid tax lien indefinitely while Experian shows it for fifteen years. If during a divorce, one spouse informally promises to pay real estate taxes on a jointly held house, or income taxes on a joint return, and subsequently fails to pay, the other spouse can experience credit damage, possibly forever, unless the tax liens are eventually paid.
The damage may persist for as long as seven years in the case of an irreversible error (such as in the instance of the earlier-mentioned house fire) or up to ten years in the instance of a bankruptcy. Even if the bankruptcy results from breach of contract, and even if the consumer obtains a verdict in court that a breach has occurred, the Credit Reporting Agencies cannot reverse such derogatory information if the bankruptcy did occur, despite the fact that it arose through no fault of the consumer. In some instances, it may be difficult to anticipate when the damage might terminate because, after seven or ten years when the credit scores have been restored, former low levels of mortgage rates may not be available.
There can be a variety of consequences to credit damage, among them: (a) withdrawal or loss of job offers, (b) significantly higher borrowing costs on credit cards and loans and higher premiums on auto insurance, (c) reduced credit expectancy or capacity, (d) the considerable expenditure of time, energy and money to remedy the situation, and finally, (e) a significant loss of enjoyment of life. Using standard forensic economic methods, these damages can be valued and claimed in lawsuits against the tortfeasors, many of whom are subject to various consumer protection laws including the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq.) and its amendments, and the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACT).
Various state and federal laws permit a wide variety of claims, including claims for punitive damages. Perhaps the easiest claims to value are the out-of-pocket expense arising from credit damage. The time lost, valued at some reasonable rate, along with out-of-pocket expenses including legal fees etc. can also be easily valued.
Frequently consumers make claims for loss of opportunity, in particular loss of job offers. If a person is offered a job at $45,000 a year and suffers a withdrawal of that offer as a result of credit damage, the loss can be the difference between the lost offer and the next best available alternative, for as many years as the reduced salary can be expected to persist. The loss of opportunity may be more than just a reduction in salary, it may involve a once-in-a-lifetime offer for a position that can never be regained.
Claims can also arise for higher-than-warranted interest costs on credit cards or loans. If a mortgage should have been issued at 4 percent, and the credit damage resulted in a mortgage rate of 6 percent, the two percent difference per annum over the life of the mortgage is a significant sum of money, and can easily be calculated.
Another credit damage claim that can be made is the loss or reduction in credit expectancy. Some consumers simply cannot obtain credit cards or loans at any rate whatsoever and hence cannot make major purchases such as homes, boats, or other assets that require loans, and must carry cash for all lesser purchases. Imagine a world where you cannot buy an airline ticket online or pay for your cell phone usage with a credit card, and where all transactions must be paid for in cash? This loss of credit expectancy can be valued by comparing the rate the consumer might have expected with the highest rate charged by credit card companies, as a floor on the loss of expectancy damages. The loss of credit expectancy is estimated by the cost of credit extended under normal circumstances versus the cost charged to those who are viewed as high credit risks to whom credit is extended, but at the highest rates charged. Normal credit costs are approximately 1 to 1.5 percent per month; the costs charged to high credit risk accounts can run to 3 percent per month or higher. For persons with prior good, or even fair, credit they had the ability to borrow considerable sums beyond his or her diminished credit. I frequently estimate this additional capacity of be at least $100,000, and likely more. This standby credit under normal conditions has a value similar to the value of a safety net for a trapeze artist, or the value of a term life policy for a person who continues to live a healthy life – the value does not depend on the actual use. It is an option, and options have value. In my earlier days, I had a seat on the Chicago board of Trade, formed in 1848 to help farmers manage their options against weather losses, price changes, and other financial ups and downs.
Finally, claims can be made and testimony can be provided for the loss of enjoyment of life, well-recognized in the State of Nevada. (See my article in Vegas Legal, August 2016 “Economic Damages in Nevada) Victims of credit damage frequently report going through protracted emotional turbulence and upset, experiencing significant loss of enjoyment of life. These damages can persist long after financial restoration is made as in some instances relationships are destroyed as a consequence of the credit damage. The standard process for evaluating the loss of enjoyment of life applies in these instances. Typically, consumers must be interviewed extensively to obtain detailed information about all these losses.
Credit damage and its consequences can arise easily in the lives of virtually any consumer despite public awareness and programs and laws to prevent this. The consequences can be financially and emotionally devastating. Forensic economists, using standard approaches, can assist in evaluating the losses.
While the filching of one’s good name and the resulting credit damage can arise from a variety of causes – and the consequences can make one very poor indeed – our legal system offers relief and the prospect of significant economic recovery for the aggrieved party.
Stan V. Smith, Ph.D., is president of Smith Economics Group, Ltd. headquartered in Chicago. Trained at the University of Chicago (one of the world’s pre-eminent institutions for the study of economics and the home of the law and economics movement), Smith has also taught at the university and co-authored the first textbook on the subject of economic damages. A nationally-renowned expert in economics who has testified nationwide in personal injury, wrongful death and commercial damages cases, Smith has assisted thousands of law firms in successful results for both plaintiffs and defendants, including the U.S. Department of Justice. To that end, Smith also developed the first course in forensic economics at DePaul University, and pioneered the concept of “hedonic damages,” testifying about the topic in landmark cases. His work has been featured in the ABA Journal, National Law Journal, and on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Kyle Lauterhahn is a Senior Economic Analyst at Smith Economics Group in Chicago.