Wednesday, May 22

Damaged credit: Can you sue?

Damaged credit: Can you sue?
| By Minda Zetlin,

Courts are recognizing that good credit is a valuable asset.

If your credit has been damaged and it isn't your fault, you may be able to sue -- and possibly collect a large settlement.

While holding others accountable for inaccurate and costly credit hits is a relatively recent legal phenomenon, courts are beginning to recognize that a good credit standing is a valuable asset, and someone who devalues that asset should be made to pay.

One groundbreaking case in the arena took place in 2002, when Home Depot took a million-dollar hit for its credit reporting actions. The company accessed the credit report of a California businessman named Alan Sporn 12 times -- each time resulting in a hard inquiry, which negatively impacted his credit score. Sporn had been a victim of identity theft, and the thief was attempting to open a line of credit with Home Depot. Sporn contacted the company, saying that he had no business with them and instructed Home Depot to stop checking his credit. Then it happened again.

"This time he got mad enough that he contacted several attorneys," says independent credit evaluator Georg Finder. "They told him this kind of stuff happened all the time and to suck it up. He finally got to an attorney who said that if he could prove he'd been damaged in some way, he had a case."

Which he did. Sporn was trying to refinance his house during that period and was denied a low interest rate due to the numerous inquiries that lowered his credit score. He hired Finder to calculate how much his damaged credit had cost him. After doing some analysis, "the case that all these other lawyers had turned down ultimately resulted in Home Depot having to pay more than $1.3 million," Finder says.

However, while a payout for damaged credit can be spectacular, getting there isn't easy. Finding an attorney to take on even a good case such as Sporn's can be a challenge. And proving credit damage usually requires hiring an expert researcher.

"To get a good valuation is expensive, so be careful of your expectations," warns Doug Koenig, an attorney in Hillsborough, N.C. "Could it work for you? Absolutely. Will it? I can't say until I've spent a lot of time reviewing your case."

Only an attorney, after careful review, can tell you whether you could win money for damaged credit. But your odds go up if you can answer "yes" to the following:

In order to sue, you have to have a cause of action -- something specific the other party did that was illegal or malicious or infringed on your rights. For instance, when Nashun Robinson, an active-duty military officer, tried to buy a home in 2012, he failed to qualify for a Veterans Administration-backed loan because Chase bank showed him as delinquent on an existing mortgage. But he had actually sold the home in a short sale, with the bank's agreement, a year earlier.

A short sale (sale of a home for less than is owed on it) always has a negative effect on the borrower's credit, though many experts believe the effect is less than with a foreclosure. Generally, the former homeowner must wait at least two years before qualifying for another loan, but because of his military status and good credit since the sale, Robinson would likely have been able to qualify sooner, according to James Wrider, a real estate broker in San Diego who is assisting Robinson.

"We brought it to the attention of the law firm that handled the [short sale] settlement," Wrider says. "They sent it to Chase. Chase said that he owes this money and that they would continue reporting him late every month. I went back and said, 'Here's your agreement saying it was settled.'"

This dispute is likely to wind up in court, Wrider says, and he believes it has all the elements of a big win. "Whatever his past issues, he had gone a solid year without any derogatory credit and had good standing as a military officer," Wrider says. And even if the bank subsequently removed the delinquent notation, the damage is already done. "He can't buy tomorrow what he could have bought a year ago," Wrider says. "Property prices may now exceed what he could comfortably afford to purchase." (Chase declined to go on record on the case).

You may also be able to collect if someone damages your credit indirectly, for instance by preventing you from being able to pay your bills. "Any sort of legal action where economic damages or compensation are sought, such as a divorce, wrongful dismissal or personal injury could qualify," Finder says.

For example, if you're laid up because of an accident that is someone else's fault, are unable to work and pay your bills and, as a result, your debts go unpaid and your credit suffers -- damages for that lost credit can and should be added to whatever compensation you're suing for, Finder says. "In that case, it has to be clearly established that, but for this collision, the economic damage wouldn't have happened," he adds. "The key to compensation is the cause of action."

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