"If there’s a massive citizens’ protest, they can’t have their officers show up to every small claims court in the country."
Image: Shutterstock / Composition: Jason Koebler
A startup specializing in litigation finance—the funding of other people's lawsuits—says it will pay for you to sue Equifax, the credit-monitoring firm that lost the social security numbers and other sensitive personal information of 143 million Americans.
Litigation finance is a controversial field. Essentially, a well-financed person or company pays the legal fees for an aggrieved party to file a lawsuit. The financier then takes a cut of the ultimate judgment. Boosters say this allows people who normally couldn't afford to participate in the legal system to do so, but often, litigation finance is used by wealthy people to make money or to use a third-party to pursue legal action against companies or people they don't like. For instance, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel paid for Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker Media, even though he wasn't involved in that specific case.
Legalist, a San Francisco-based startup, claims to be the first "algorithmic litigation finance firm," and says it uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to predict which plaintiffs are worth financing. In this case, cofounder Eva Shang says no algorithm is necessary to determine that roughly 143 million people have slam-dunk cases against Equifax.
Shang's company will mail you a check to pay for a small claims court filing fee (generally between $70 and $100), and will give you a pre-filled legal complaint to send to the court. If you win, Legalist will take 30 percent of the judgment. Legalist recently closed a $10.25 million funding round and Shang said it's taking some of that money to pay for these court cases (Shang declined to say exactly how much it had set aside for this purpose.)
So far, about 100 people have signed up, according to Shang.
The strategy is an interesting one. Rather than participate in a class-action lawsuit (there are lots of those in the nascent stages right now), Legalist says it wants people to sue Equifax in small claims court. Many small claims courts have proceedings that last just one day, and many of them ban lawyers from participating altogether, meaning Equifax would in theory have to fight potentially many thousands of court cases every day in districts all over the United States, using people who actually work for the company.
"The evidence is everywhere that Equifax perpetrated massive negligence," Shang told me on a phone call. "What we're betting on is Equifax won't show up to these proceedings so the chances are high you'd get a default judgment. If there's a massive citizens' protest, they can't have their officers show up to every small claims court in the country."
The strategy is similar to one being employed by Joshua Browder, programmer of the free "DoNotPay" chat bot, which will fill out a small court claim for you. Browder's bot won't pay your filing fee, but also won't take a 30 percent cut.
An Equifax spokesperson said the company did not want to comment on any litigation strategies.
"We cannot comment on pending litigation, but want to reassure consumers that we are remaining focused on helping them to navigate this situation and providing the best customer support possible," the spokesperson said. "We are listening to issues consumers have experienced and their suggestions, which are helping to further inform our actions as we continue to improve this process."
Shang says it's possible that Equifax would try to move individual court cases out of small claims courts and into District Courts, but Legalist believes this will be a bad strategy: "If they move it, the value of each claim could be worth a lot more, and there's no precedent for having millions of court cases moved from small claims court to District Court," she said.
Legalist has set up a website in which users are asked to fill out their basic residency information and upload proof that their information was lost by Equifax (Legalist recommends holding an ID up to your screen and taking a photo of the Equifax website; I am not a lawyer—I can't recommend doing this and uploading your information comes down to whether you trust Legalist with your identification).
After submitting that information, Legalist responds with a prefilled small claims court complaint. When I tried it, the form didn't work (I got an error message), but Shang sent me the prefilled complaints for New York and California: "The breach has resulted in permanent release of my permanent data, including my social security number," the California complaint reads. "I am seeking the maximum amount allowed under CA Small Claims."
I'm not sure whether this will work or not, and Shang says there's not a whole lot of precedent for it in the American legal system that she's aware of. "It's speculative at this point, so we don't know how much will be awarded," she said. "If it does work, there's a lot of potential for people to take justice into their own hands rather than rely on lawyers."
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