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Teresa Price v. Trans Union

March 16, 2012

TERESA PRICE,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
TRANS UNION, L.L.C., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eduardo C. Robreno, J.

MEMORANDUM

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. INTRODUCTION..............................................2

II. BACKGROUND................................................3

III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW.......................................7

A. Rule 50 Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law.......7

B. Rule 59 Motion for New Trial.........................9

IV. DISCUSSION...............................................10

A. Defendant's Motion for Renewed Judgment as a Matter of Law.................................................10

1. Burden of Proof................................12

2. Sufficiency of the Evidence....................13

a. Applicable Law............................13

b. Analysis..................................14

i. Wilmington Trust report error........15

ii. Record of Plaintiff's previous disputes with Defendant.......................18

B. Plaintiff's Motion for New Trial....................27

1. Defense Counsel's Withholding of Evidence......28

a. Applicable Law............................28

b. Analysis..................................29

i. Withheld credit report...............29

ii. Withheld trade line address screen...32

2. Defense Counsel's Misconduct During Examination of Plaintiff...................................36

a. Applicable Law............................36

b. Analysis..................................37

3. Defense Counsel's Misconduct During Closing Statement......................................46

a. Applicable Law............................46

b. Analysis..................................47

4. Alleged Court Error in Evidentiary Rulings.....55

a. Applicable Law............................55

b. Analysis..................................56

i. Not permitting Plaintiff to introduce evidence of willful violation of the FCRA.................................57

ii. Permitting Defendant to introduce evidence of Plaintiff's lawsuits against Equifax, Experian, and Financial Recoveries.................64

5. Alleged Court Error in Denying Plaintiff's Jury Instructions...................................66

a. Applicable Law............................66

b. Analysis..................................67

6. Cumulative Effect of Errors....................72

V. CONCLUSION...............................................73

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Teresa Price ("Plaintiff") brought this action against Defendant Trans Union, L.L.C. ("Defendant"),*fn1 a national consumer reporting agency ("CRA"). Plaintiff alleged violations of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq. ("FCRA"). In particular, Plaintiff claimed Defendant willfully or negligently violated the FCRA by failing to follow reasonable procedures to assure the maximum possible accuracy of information on Plaintiff's credit report, as required by FCRA.

15 U.S.C. § 1681e(b)(2006). Additionally, Plaintiff claimed Defendant willfully and/or negligently violated the FCRA by failing to permanently correct inaccuracies in Plaintiff's credit file within thirty days after disputing such inaccuracies. See 15 U.S.C. § 1681i. The case eventually went to trial. The jury returned a verdict for Plaintiff on her claim of negligent violation of § 1681e(b) with a damage award of $10,000. Defendant moves for a Renewed Judgment as a Matter of Law. Plaintiff moves for a new trial.

For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny both motions.

II. BACKGROUND

Defendant generates consumer credit reports. These reports are generated via a matching procedure. Defendant receives credit information from tens of thousands of sources on a monthly basis. Defendant processes this information so that information associated with sufficiently similar identifying information can be stored together in electronic files. There are more electronic files than there are consumers because identifying information associated with a consumer can vary from creditor to creditor given that consumers move, marry/divorce, and change last names. When a potential creditor enters identifying information for an individual the aforementioned matching logic combines all files that meet the matching criteria and, thereafter, maintains only one file with the information. Because exact matches are not required, two files may mix because the two individuals represented by the file have common addresses, last names, social security numbers, etc. When files from different individuals mix, a "mixed file" is created.

Plaintiff's claims stem from Defendant's inaccurate matching procedure. Plaintiff claims that Defendant has been mixing Plaintiff's credit information with another consumer's credit information for the better part of a decade. Plaintiff states that she disputed the fact that her file has been mixed with information from another individual with the same/similar name since as early as November 2001. In 2005 and 2007, Plaintiff also disputed certain accounts on her credit report that did not belong to her. Despite having warnings in 2001, 2005, and 2007, that Defendant included another person's credit information in Plaintiff's credit file, Defendant continued to substantially mix Plaintiff's credit file in 2009 and 2010. By March 2009, Plaintiff's credit file contained various public records, derogatory accounts, and inquiries that belonged to another Teresa Price ("non-party Teresa Price").

Plaintiff learned of the 2009 reporting problems when she was denied financing for a car that she wanted to purchase for her son. In March 2009, once she discovered the various problems on her credit report, she promptly called Defendant and disputed the information. Additionally, Plaintiff advised Defendant that she had previously filed disputes with Defendant for this same reason. After the March 2009 call, Defendant deleted one piece of the derogatory information, the bankruptcy.

Typically, when Defendant is repeatedly confronted with a mixed-file problem, Defendant will put a "Do Not Merge" tag on the files that mix, provided specific criteria are met. The "Do Not Merge" procedure prevents the mixing of two consumers' credit histories because it uses very strict matching criteria. When a file has a "Do Not Merge" tag placed on it, digit-for-digit matching of all nine digits of a social security number is required. Implementing the "Do Not Merge" procedure only takes a few seconds, and after Defendant determines that a consumer's credit file is indeed mixed, it only has to make a selection on the computer. Despite the repeated mixing problems with Plaintiff's file, Defendant did not employ the "Do Not Merge" procedure in 2001, 2005, or 2007. Defendant contended that at no time before the institution of this suit did Plaintiff sufficiently, according to Defendant's criteria, notify it that Plaintiff's credit file was a mixed file.

Plaintiff filed her Complaint on March 27, 2009, against Defendant and then-Defendant Financial Recoveries. Plaintiff eventually moved to amend her Complaint to remove Financial Recoveries, which had settled, and to add allegations for conduct after March 27, 2009. See Motion for Leave to File Amended Complaint, ECF No. 32. The Court granted-in-part and denied-in-part Plaintiff's motion, granting Plaintiff's dismissal of Financial Recoveries and denying addition of allegations post-dating March 27, 2009. See Order, Aug. 18, 2010, ECF No. 55. In that interim, Defendant filed a motion for partial summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims except for one of her negligence claims under § 1681e(b). The Court denied this motion. See Order, Nov. 29, 2010, ECF No. 59.

After five days of trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Plaintiff on her claim for negligent violation of § 1681e(b) in the amount of $10,000. Defendant now moves for a Renewed Judgment as a Matter of Law.*fn2 Plaintiff moves for a New Trial. Both motions are fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

III. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

A. Rule 50 Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

In the aftermath of a jury trial, a court may grant a motion for judgment as a matter of law if it determines that there was no "legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to have found for a particular party on an issue," and that, without a favorable finding on that issue, the party cannot maintain his claim under controlling law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1). In determining whether to grant judgment as a matter of law, the court "must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and determine whether the record contains the 'minimum quantum of evidence from which a jury might reasonably afford relief.'" Glenn Distribs. Corp. v. Carlisle Plastics, Inc., 297 F.3d 294, 299 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Mosley v. Wilson, 102 F.3d 85, 89 (3d Cir. 1996)). Indeed, a court may grant judgment as a matter of law "only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and giving it the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury reasonably could find liability." LePage's Inc. v. 3M, 324 F.3d 141, 145-46 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir. 1993)).

In this endeavor, "[t]he court may not weigh evidence, determine the credibility of witnesses or substitute its version of the facts for that of the jury." Parkway Garage, Inc. v. City of Phila., 5 F.3d 685, 691 (3d Cir. 1993). Rather, the Court may grant a Rule 50 motion only "if upon review of the record it can be said as a matter of law that the verdict is not supported by legally sufficient evidence." Id. at 691-92; see also LePage's, 324 F.3d at 145-46 ("[R]review of a jury's verdict is limited to determining whether some evidence in the record supports the jury's verdict."); Glenn Distribs., 297 F.3d at 299 (stating that "[t]he standard for granting summary judgment under Rule 56 'mirrors the standard for a directed verdict under [Fed. R. Civ. P.] 50(a)'") (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986)).

Upon the renewed motion of a party, Rule 50(b) allows the trial court to enter judgment as a matter of law at the conclusion of a jury trial notwithstanding a jury verdict for the opposing party. Such judgment may be entered under Rule 50(b) "only if, as a matter of law, the record is critically deficient of that minimum quantity of evidence from which a jury might reasonably afford relief." Trabal v. Wells Fargo Armored Serv. Corp., 269 F.3d 243, 249 (3d Cir. 2001). In deciding whether to grant this "sparingly invoked remedy," the court must "refrain from weighing the evidence, determining the credibility of witnesses, or substituting [its] own version of the facts for that of the jury." Marra v. Phila. Housing Auth., 497 F.3d 286, 300 (3d Cir. 2007) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

B. Rule 59 Motion for New Trial

"The court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court . . . ." Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1). The decision whether to grant a new trial following a jury verdict is within the discretion of the district court and such requests are disfavored. E.g., Williamson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1353 (3d Cir. 1991).

The Court's inquiry in evaluating a motion for a new trial on the basis of trial error is twofold. It must first determine whether an error was made in the course of the trial, and then it must determine "whether that error was so prejudicial that refusal to grant a new trial would be inconsistent with substantial justice." Farra v. Stanley-Bostitch, Inc., 838 F. Supp. 1021, 1026 (E.D. Pa. 1993) (Robreno, J.) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted); see Gebhardt v. Wilson Freight Forwarding Co., 348 F.2d 129, 133 (3d Cir. 1965) ("If the evidence in the record, viewed from the standpoint of the successful party, is sufficient to support the jury verdict, a new trial is not warranted merely because the jury could have reached a different result.").

IV. DISCUSSION

The Court will address Defendant's motion for a Renewed Judgment as a Matter of Law ("JMOL") first. Then, the Court will consider Plaintiff's Motion for a New Trial.

A. Defendant's Motion for Renewed Judgment as a Matter of Law

Defendant contends that it is entitled to a JMOL because the evidence is insufficient to support the jury verdict finding Defendant liable for "negligently fail[ing] to comply with its duty to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information contained on Plaintiff's credit reports from March 27, 2007 to March 27, 2009." Def.'s Mot. for J. Matter of L. 1.

Defendant moves for a JMOL only as to the jury verdict that it negligently violated § 1681e(b). In pertinent part, § 1681e(b) requires CRAs to follow "reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy" when preparing consumer reports. "Negligent noncompliance with § 1681e(b), consists of the following four elements: '(1) inaccurate information was included in a consumer's credit report; (2) the inaccuracy was due to defendant's failure to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy; (3) the consumer suffered injury; and (4) the consumer's injury was caused by the inclusion of the inaccurate entry.'" Cortez v. Trans Union, L.L.C., 617 F.3d 688, 708 (3d. Cir. 2010) (quoting Philbin v. Trans Union Corp., 101 F.3d 957, 963 (3d Cir. 1996)). The only element relevant to Defendant's motion is whether the inaccurate credit report was the result of "[D]efendant's failure to follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy." Id.

"Reasonable procedures are those that a reasonably prudent person would undertake under the circumstances. Judging the reasonableness of a credit reporting agency's procedures involves weighing the potential harm from inaccuracy against the burden of safeguarding against such inaccuracy." Philbin, 101 F.3d at 963 (alterations, citations, and quotations marks omitted). Under § 1681e(b) the standard is "maximum possible accuracy," which is more "than merely allowing for the possibility of accuracy." Cortez, 617 F.3d at 709. Moreover, the "reasonableness of a credit reporting agency's procedures is 'normally a question for trial unless the reasonableness or unreasonableness of the procedures is beyond question.'" Id. (quoting Sarver v. Experian Info. Solutions, 390 F.3d 969, 971 (7th Cir. 2004)).

1. Burden of Proof

There is much debate between the parties as to what is Plaintiff's burden of proof. In the context of the quantum of evidence necessary to defeat a motion for summary judgment, the Third Circuit provides the following three approaches: (1) "that a plaintiff must produce some evidence beyond a mere inaccuracy in order to demonstrate the failure to follow reasonable procedures;" (2) "that the jury may infer the failure to follow reasonable procedures from the mere fact of an inaccuracy;" or (3) "that upon demonstrating an inaccuracy, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that reasonable procedures were followed." Philbin, 101 F.3d at 965. Since this pronouncement in Philbin, the Third Circuit has never adopted any one of the three burdens. See Cortez, 617 F.3 at 710; Schweitzer v. Equifax ...


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