This article by Matt Hongoltz-Hetling was initially published by the Valley News.
RANDOLPH — In a small claims court ruling that surprised even the victor, a self-described member of the “librarian resistance” has won a $600 judgment against Equifax, the credit ratings agency that collects financial data on nearly a billion consumers and businesses worldwide.
In September, Jessamyn West, of Randolph, walked into the Orange County Courthouse in Chelsea and filed papers asking the judge to compel Equifax to pay her nearly $5,000 in connection with a data breach that affected more than 100 million people.
“I found out along with everyone else in September that Equifax had lost my information,” West said during a Tuesday phone interview. “They didn’t patch part of their computer system, and hackers absconded with the information of me and 140 million other Americans.”
The 49-year-old West said she’s not sure what of her personal information was compromised, though the company has admitted the hackers accessed names, addresses, Social Security numbers and, for hundreds of thousands of people, credit card information.
West is a tech-savvy librarian at the Randolph Technical Career Center who gives regular public lectures on privacy rights, online security and information science across the state.
“I’m a civics nerd. I’m a justice of the peace. It’s all very ‘Vermonty,’” she said.
In the aftermath of the breach, West was dismayed by what she perceived to be a general sense of defeatism when discussing the breach with friends.
“I would go to dinner and they would say ‘Equifax! Crazy! Nothing you can do,’” she recalled.
But for West, the situation rankled. Her mother had died that year and, as co-executor of the estate, West had run into various problems verifying her online identity during what already was a distressing experience.
So she decided to do something about it.
“Filing small claims cases is a thing human beings can do. It’s not that hard,” she said. “And the amount of money it cost, 90 bucks — it’s not nothing, but to me it’s not a huge amount of money.”
West didn’t expect Equifax to bother to put in an appearance during a May court date. The Atlanta-based company, one of the country’s “Big Three” credit ratings agencies, reported $3.4 billion in revenue for 2017, up 7 percent from 2016.
But someone did show up.
West described the company representative, who had been flown into the state, as a “surprisingly nice and friendly” paralegal, who, between the courtroom proceedings, chatted with her about novel-to-him Vermont experiences, including the state’s craft beers and dirt roads.
“I expected someone in a suit who did not have a sense of humor about having to come to Vermont,” she said. “Instead I got this guy.”
After West and the Equifax representative argued their respective positions, West said she thought she would lose the case because he had pointed out her difficulties in proving “speculative damages” — which cannot typically be recovered by a plaintiff.
Judge Bernard Lewis said he would look into the idea of speculative damages, and issue a ruling soon. On June 4, Lewis issued a court order that found West was owed money to cover the cost of up to two years of payments to online identity protection services, plus her $90 filing fee.
West said the victory shows that large corporations don’t always win.
“I’m not even the little guy,” she said. “I’m the microscopic, can’t-even-see-me, speck of dust guy.”
She encouraged others to follow her lead, “if they think they have a case. Especially if weird stuff is going on with your finances.”
In an email on Tuesday, Marisa Salcines, an Equifax spokeswoman, declined to comment on the case.
Though it’s unclear whether Equifax’s bottom line is being affected, news agencies across the country have reported a flurry of class action lawsuits and small claims court cases against the company in recent months. A Stanford University student made headlines nationwide when he created an online application that streamlined the process to file against the company, and some cases reportedly have been resolved against the company for up to $10,000 each.
West said that seeing news coverage about that application had helped spark her interest in filing the suit.
But now, West said, she’s moving on to express her ire in other ways, at other companies.
“Today,” she said, “I’m mad at Greyhound…”
Take the legal journey with West in this thread from her Twitter account: