Asked in Consumer Law for California

Q: Is it legal for a Cal. attorney to perform a background check on me pulling my credit report and SSN without my consent?

My wife was the party in an estate action on her parent's estate. The opposing counsel had a private investigator check me out, including pulling my credit report and social security number. I was not a party to the litigation, but was a potential witness. The attorney then gave the executor (my sister-in-law) the report with the information (SSN, credit history) and she gave it to her brother who is now sending it to friends and family around the world. The original action was settled in mediation and I only found out about the PI report recently after a friend received it via online message. The BIL has sent it across state and international lines both over the internet and physical copies by postal mail. Do I have remedies against the lawyer, SIL, and BIL? Needless to say, distress is high, no financial harm yet, but dozens at least have my SSN.

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1 Lawyer Answer
Answered
  • Riverside, CA
  • Licensed in California

A: Get a copy of the report that is being circulated. The credit reporting agency should be identified. Get your own Annual Credit Report from that agency. It will include an inquiries section to identify all persons or entities that requested and obtained your credit report. From your description, it does not sound like the law firm was authorized to request your credit report. The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows production of a credit report for a variety of reasons, most applicable to your situation appears to be: to satisfy a court order or subpoena before a federal Grand Jury; or if there is a legitimate business need, which is in connection with a business transaction that is initiated by the consumer; or to review an account to determine whether the consumer continues to meet the terms of the account. 15 U.S. Code § 1681b (https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/15/1681b)

California Consumer Credit Reporting Act follows similar guidelines, but allows disclosure upon a valid court order (a subpoena), or if the requesting party has a "legitimate business need" Civil Code section 1785.11(a)(1) or (a)(3)(F). (https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?lawCode=CIV&division=3.&title=1.6.&part=4.&chapter=2.&article=)

It is unknown if the credit report was obtained pursuant to a subpoena (a court order), or if obtaining the report is a "legitimate business need" in connection with the litigation. It does not appear to be for purposes of the Federal statute, but the wording of California's statute is less clear. Further research would be necessary, but it appears that at least the Federal claim could be made.

However, if a law firm obtained a credit report unlawfully, it could be a valid claim. If the law firm disseminated that credit report, that could be another valid claim. If another person, in turn, disseminated the credit report further, that could a another claim against that person, etc.

Consult with a PI attorney or possibly a credit repair attorney. These are not common claims, so some attorneys may not be familiar with the applicable laws. There are also concerns about collectability of a judgment for these claims. The law firm may not be insured for this type of claim. The brother in law and sister in law may have homeowner's insurance, but it may not apply either.

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