AN IDENTITY THIEF’S WORST NIGHTMARE
That would be Mississippi consumer law attorney Christopher Kittell
Published in 2012 Mid-South Rising Stars magazine
on November 9, 2012
Updated on February 7, 2013
Christopher Kittell has been battling identity theft since he was 17 years old.
On his first day as a runner at Lewis & Lewis Attorneys in Clarksdale, Miss., he was asked to help with a big case involving the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). His initial task: make copies of credit reports. “I didn’t even know what those were,” he says. After all, he was too young to have a credit card.
But he learned fast and found the case fascinating. So much so that FCRA cases are a major part of his practice today.
That first case taught him a thing or two about avoiding identity theft.
“You see more identity theft with family members,” he says. “Everybody’s worried about being on the Internet—and Internet-related theft does happen—but your family members have access to your Social Security number. They know your date of birth. They know all your information.”
In that first case, a Clarksdale man, Terry Cousin, had found mysterious accounts showing up on his credit reports. It gradually became apparent that the culprit was Cousin’s own brother. Cousin wrote to the credit bureaus to try to correct the error, but he hit a wall. “Nobody was listening to him,” Kittell says.
Husband-and-wife attorneys Mike and Pauline Lewis ended up taking on the case, though they assumed it would be small potatoes. “This was the early 1990s, and identity theft wasn’t really known at that time,” Kittell says. “Pauline thought, ‘We’ll just write a few letters and that should take care of it.’” Cousin v. Trans Union Corporation wound up with a $4.5 million verdict against the credit bureau. Kittell, meanwhile, had worked his way up, during summers and school breaks, from runner to paralegal to law clerk to—after graduation from the University of Mississippi School of Law—practicing attorney at Lewis & Lewis. He even helped write the appellate briefs on Cousin’s behalf after Trans Union appealed. Though the punitive damages against Trans Union were reversed, the first suit Kittell filed as an attorney won a six-figure settlement for Cousin against a previously sued creditor who continued to report a fraudulent account in Cousin’s name.
“The [overall] case got national attention,” says Kittell, who now has FCRA cases from around the nation. He continued to work for the Lewises until they retired, and ended up with Merkel & Cocke. Last summer he opened his own practice, Kittell Law Firm, in Hernando, Miss., with his wife, Jennifer, as his paralegal. Kittell takes on both FCRA and personal injury cases—he won a $2.3 million slip-and-fall verdict in 2006 while at Merkel & Cocke.
Despite the fact that the FCRA has been in existence for more than 40 years, relatively few lawyers make it a focus of their careers. Kittell handles both identity theft and simple mix-ups, which can happen when people have similar names or Social Security numbers (also a common occurrence in families). He even blogs on FCRA topics.
In Kittell’s view, the credit bureaus are not a consumer’s friend. “It’s a terrible system,” he says. “It’s one thing to make a mistake on the front end—that’s bad enough. But once you’re told about it, it shouldn’t be hard to fix.” When reports are disputed, the law requires credit bureaus to perform “reasonable” investigations, but Kittell says these may be outsourced, with low-wage workers sometimes juggling many investigations.
“When you put that in front of a jury,” Kittell says, “most of the time they don’t find that ‘reasonable.’”
The damage to credit victims isn’t just financial—it’s emotional. “The worst case I ever had: A guy had his identity stolen, and the thief opened 40 accounts, some ungodly number. He bought a Harley and an Expedition in my client’s name,” Kittell says. “Before my client found me—he was a retired Army captain, a Type A personality who took all the steps he was supposed to take—at his worst point he was sitting in his closet with a gun in his mouth. Luckily, he didn’t pull the trigger.”
In this case, Kittell won his client fair compensation and a clean credit report. “But in the meantime, they caught the thief on the Harley,” Kittell says. “He was caught, prosecuted, convicted, served his time, and got out of jail before my client got his credit report fixed.”
Kittell takes each case seriously. “I get fired up about it,” he says. “I love getting justice for somebody who deserves it.”