How to sue Equifax and win big

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In 2017, Christian Haigh learned he was one of the 143 million people in the U.S. whose information was hacked in the Equifax breach.

As you might recall, Equifax issued an apology that was almost laughable. Lawyers started class-action lawsuits. But Haigh, who is a co-founder and CTO of litigation finance startup Legalist, had a different approach.

He filed suit against the credit reporting giant in small-claims court in San Francisco.

This was a brilliant idea. I imagine it's unlikely Equifax thought it would be dealing with individual plaintiffs, suing for fairly small dollar amounts, in very informal courtrooms across the country.

Ultimately, Haigh won an $8,000 judgment against the credit reporting giant--later reduced to $5,500 on appeal.

In the process, his company started funding other people's small claims suits against Equifax, too. (Legalist pays lawyers in plaintiff's suits on an hourly basis, and takes a contingency fee if the case is successful.)

I interviewed Haigh and his co-founder, CEO Eva Shang, after reading two blog posts in which Haigh described his experience (here and here).

Fortune favors the bold

Here's the timeline: The breach happened in July 2017; Equifax disclosed it on September 7 of that year. Haigh filed suit on September 19. That's rocket-speed in litigation. 

In fact, many lawyers seem to wait until the last day before the statute of limitations expires on a claim before filing. Not Haigh, and none of this would have worked out for him if he hadn't raced to the courthouse.

"Since we heard about [the Equifax breach] and realized I'd been impacted, I wanted to do something about it," Haigh told me. "And if I didn't do something then, I would have never done it."

This also meant he got to choose the battlefield. Doing battle with Equifax in small claims court resulted in a "much more relaxed situation” than a more formal court, Haigh said.

Turn weaknesses into strengths

This is when things start to get graceful; when you can find a way to turn something that should be working against you into an advantage. Haigh isn't a lawyer, and this was his first time in court. But as Shang pointed out:

"When you're showing up in small claims court, it's not a literal battle between you and the other side. It might feel like it, but you're really trying to impress the judge. It's an arena for regular people to settle grievances. So Christian's weakness--no law degree--became his strength."

Haigh won, but Equifax appealed the judgment, and it sent a high-powered lawyer from the law firm of King & Spalding to oppose him--along with an in-house lawyer and a company vice president. Haigh said he realized this could actually be a good thing for him.

"Equifax, being a large national corporation, part of their litigation strategy is to hire the best people, so they hire King & Spalding. But they're not really thinking through the fact that King & Spalding probably doesn't go to small-claims court very often," he told me.

Sure enough, Haigh writes in his blog post, this benefited him when the company's lead lawyer didn't know (or seemed not to know) that in small claims court, hearsay evidence is admissible.

Thus, he wasted time and effort arguing that Haigh shouldn't be allowed to use a report about the Equifax breach from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren as evidence. 

Show up

As the great philosopher Wayne Gretzky once put it, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take. And I guess you lose 100 percent of the small-claims court cases you never get around to filing.

"This is a no-brainer," Haigh wrote in his blog post, "but I looked up the woman who came after me as well as the man who preceded me. They both got similar awards, in the $8,000 range. Just showing up to court could mean a significant judgment."

version of this article originally appeared in my column on Inc.com.