James Rennick needed $ 125,000 quickly.
It was January 2017 and Angela, his high school friend and wife for five decades, was dying of lung, kidney, bone and brain cancer. He needed a home equity loan for renovations that included a full bathroom downstairs, an air conditioner so Angela could breathe the Florida heat, and a mosquito net so his wife could be there. ‘outside even with its “extreme allergy to insects in the region”.
He also needed money to cover the funeral expenses he feared they might come.
Rennick didn’t have the money.
“James Rennick and his wife Angela were both cremated because there was not enough money for the more expensive option of burial, court documents show. “
A mortgage broker said there was an issue with his Equifax and Experian credit reports. It was the start of an ordeal that consumer advocates say is all too common: Rennick’s credit history information was mistaken for that of another man.
Records indicated that Rennick was dead, according to the broker. Equifax and Experian, two of the top three credit reporting agencies collecting data on a person’s creditworthiness, had somehow mixed up their credit history with an unrelated James Palmer, Rennick’s 2017 lawsuit said.
Rennick was in desperate need of money to help his ailing wife, with an incorrect credit report standing in his way, according to his lawsuit. Rennick, 70, died in May 2018 with his trial pending.
“He died of a broken heart,” his daughter Michele Malverty said in a deposition last September.
Rennick and his wife were both cremated because there was not enough money for the more expensive option of burial, according to court documents.
Malverty is preparing for a November lawsuit against Equifax in federal court in Tampa, Florida.
(A spokesperson for Equifax said the company would not comment on the pending litigation. TransUnion and Experian also did not respond to the request for comment.)
The other James – James Palmer – resided in Granville, NY and died in 2016 at the age of 71. The two shared the same first name, but as the case progressed Malverty would find out, due to a series of alleged missteps by the companies involved. , they shared more than that.
A serious example of a persistent problem
It was not the only case of its kind. Four years ago, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion entered into agreements with more than 30 attorneys general. Among other systemic changes, the 2015 pacts required bureaus to share information about confirmed âmixed filesâ and develop best practices to avoid saying a living consumer was dead.
““There is a culture out there that they are more concerned with keeping creditors and debt collectors happy than doing it right.”“
The Rennick case suggests changes are slow in the âbig three,â said Chi Chi Wu, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. âThere is a culture out there that they are more concerned with keeping creditors and debt collectors happy than doing things right,â she said.
Earlier this year, she wrote a report saying the three credit bureaus use “too loose match criteria” when putting debt collector and creditors information on a person’s file.
A quarter of the 329,800 complaints received by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year were about Equifax EFX,
and TransUnion TRU,
Some 83% of those complaints were related to incorrect information on the file – which could include a mixed file, among others – or a problem investigating a dispute.
But it is difficult to say precisely how often mixed files occur.
Equifax’s expert witness in a separate trial in 2013 said mixed cases can occur in 1-2% of all cases. Since the CFPB estimates that 208 million Americans have records with at least one of the three major credit bureaus, these percentages – if extrapolated to all three bureaus – could mean as many as 2 million people have someone else’s information on file.
Wu said that even 1% is a lot. âIt’s a consumer’s financial reputation. ”
In some cases, consumers are able to quickly correct errors. Experian fixed Rennick’s snafu after the first dispute, his lawyer said. Experian settled Rennick’s lawsuit for an undisclosed sum, according to court documents.
“âThis is a consumer’s financial reputation. ““
But that’s another story with Equifax.
Rennick sent a letter from the Social Security Administration to Equifax vouching for him. He went back to the broker, hoping that would solve the problem. Still, Rennick’s report said he was behind on mortgage payments, the broker said. Rennick obtained a letter from the lender saying that the mortgage in question was not his.
In court documents, Equifax said it deleted a “deceased” reference during Rennick’s first phone dispute.
However, Angela, 68, died before Rennick could unravel the relationships and secure a loan. She died in June 2017 and Rennick sued a month later.
After Angela’s death, the partially paralyzed Rennick got a Kia so his daughter could drive him. The bank repossessed the vehicle because, according to court documents, Rennick’s credit report showed he was dead, his lawyer said. For its part, Equifax said it had already deleted the reference to “deceased”.
A jury will decide the case now
The credit bureau violated the Fair Credit Reporting Act, argues Malverty’s lawsuit. When consumer reporting agencies offer information about a person’s creditworthiness, the law states that they must “follow reasonable procedures to ensure the greatest possible accuracy of the information”.
Daniel Zemel, Clifton, NJ’s attorney representing Malverty, has filed about 200 cases a year against credit bureaus for alleged credit reporting violations. He has had five cases related to mixed files, he said. âThe injury here is worse than any other case I have ever had,â he told MarketWatch. “None of them are as extreme as this case.”
“Equifax says she “has conscientiously investigated every time Rennick has made a dispute.” “
The Rennicks were Roman Catholics and the funeral was family custom, he said. Angela was afraid of fire, due to a childhood burn on her face, Zemel noted.
Although creditors provided incorrect information, Equifax said it did not violate the Fair Credit Reporting Act in the way it handled Rennick’s dispute. The company has said in court records that it has not acted maliciously and, in fact, “has conscientiously investigated every time Rennick has made a dispute.”
In addition, there is no guarantee that Rennick would have obtained the money, argues Equifax. He noted that Rennick did not have the house title. But Zemel said the Rennicks could easily have secured the title by applying for the loan.
So how did the two files get mixed up?
James Rennick, of Spring Hill, Fla., And James Palmer of Granville, NY, never met, but they had two important things in common: the same first name and the same eight-digit sequence of their nine-digit Social Security number. figures.
The similarities between the two numbers “would not, according to Equifax procedures, mix the Rennick and Palmer records,” the credit bureau said in court documents.
“James Rennick, of Spring Hill, Fla., And James Palmer of Granville, NY, never met, but it turned out they had two important things in common.“
But Equifax said a mortgage lender in 2006 listed Palmer’s social security number for a mortgage held by Rennick. The lender then updated the report with the correct Rennick number and transferred it to another lender. These updates made it possible to combine the two files in 2008.
âFrom that time until Rennick’s dispute with Equifax, Rennick’s and Palmer’s accounts appeared in a single shared file,â Equifax said in a court file.
As the Rennick case prepares for trial, Palmer’s surviving wife also has an ongoing lawsuit against Equifax in New York state federal court. She alleges that the couple had difficulty obtaining credit and a repossessed car due to the confusion. Equifax denies any responsibility and is fighting the case.
Mixed files can be rare compared to other credit report problems, but they can be the most difficult to correct, especially without litigation, âsaid consumer lawyer Penny Hays Cauley of Florence, SC. Mixed files represent approximately 10% of its files. on credit score issues.
“Once incorrect data is entered into the system, correcting credit reports can be like an âecho chamberâ.“
Mixed files are difficult to fix because once bad data enters computerized credit information systems, it can be difficult to erase, said Justin Baxter, lawyer at Baxter & Baxter in Portland, Ore. âIt’s just an echo chamber,â he said. .
Cauley represented a woman whose credit information was mixed with that of someone with a bad credit history. This was particularly concerning because his client was married to a man with a top-secret security clearance, Cauley explained.
The man’s employer often checked the backgrounds of his workers and their relatives for disturbing signs, she added. âIt just created this level of stress for the family,â Cauley said, noting that the case resulted in a confidential settlement in 2014.
In 2013, Baxter won an $ 18.6 million jury verdict against Equifax for a client named Julie Miller whose information merged with another Julie Miller. Miller filed several lawsuits with Equifax over two years, to no avail. The appellate judges reduced Miller’s compensation to $ 1.62 million in damages and $ 300,000 in legal costs, Baxter said.
Meanwhile, as Malverty’s trial date draws near, the two sides fight over what information can be admitted into the courtroom.
Equifax lawyers have said jurors should not hear of the Rennicks seeking money for home renovations, or that they were both cremated. Hearing the two cases could unfairly turn the jury against the credit bureau, they say.
Zemel did not make Malverty available for an interview.
But in her September 2018 statement, Malverty said the confused files destroyed her and her family. “I am tormented every day,” she said at the time. One memory was finding his father talking to his mother’s urn, saying “Ang, I’m sorry I let you down.” “