Franz Kafka could have wrung a book from the case of Cousin v. Trans Union Corp. The lawsuit is now pending in the Supreme Court on a petition for review. The high court should hear it.
For 17 years, Terry Cousin has been struggling fruitlessly to clear his good name. Last March the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit pushed him down again.
This is the story as told by Circuit Judge Harold R. DeMoss Jr.: "Cousin lives in Clarksdale, Miss., with his wife and two teenage daughters and has worked at the Mississippi Department of Health for 19 years. He has apparently maintained a flawless credit history except for certain items resulting from the fraudulent acts of others.
"In 1984, Cousin's brother Richie misappropriated Cousin's personal identifying information, i.e., his name and Social Security number, to obtain automobile loans from two different lenders, NBC Bank of Mississippi and City Finance of Okolona. When Richie failed to pay, the delinquencies were negatively noted on Cousin's file with Trans Union, a consumer reporting agency."
Nothing much happened for several years, while the false data slept in Trans Union's files. Then, in 1993, brother Richie again pretended to be Terry Cousin and again applied for credit to purchase an automobile in Aberdeen, Miss. Richie gave a down payment check that bounced.
"The dealer contacted Cousin, who explained that his brother was an impostor. Nevertheless, General Motors Acceptance Corp., the apparent lender on that automobile loan, forwarded negative information about Cousin to Trans Union.
"On Dec. 6, 1993, Trans Union sent a consumer report to Cousin containing the adverse information about the NBC account and another account and listed a fraudulent Aberdeen address.
"Cousin immediately informed GMAC of the error and requested Trans Union to delete all the fraudulent information. Trans Union responded by sending Cousin a partially corrected consumer report."
In May 1994, Cousin sued Trans Union for its continued reporting of the fraudulent accounts. The suit was settled in January 1995. Trans Union agreed to suppress all the adverse information, but a month later the same old fraudulent information was still there.
In November 1996, Cousin went to Heafner Motors to buy a car. When the dealer sought a credit report, Trans Union again reported the delinquent BellSouth account and identified the account as a "P and L writeoff" with a "N09 rating, the worst rating a consumer can receive." Cousin protested. Nothing effective was done. As late as May 1997 Trans Union was still circulating damaging information.
Fed up, Cousin sued again.
The jury returned a verdict for Cousin of $50,000 in compensatory damages and $4.47 million in punitive damages.
Last March a panel of the 5th Circuit voted 2-1 that Trans Union had not acted willfully or maliciously. The majority vacated the District Court's judgment and ruled that Cousin could take nothing with respect to his claims. Circuit Judge Robert M. Parker dissented. He thought the jury's award was "entirely reasonable." I concur. It's up to the high court now.