On September 7, Equifax revealed a massive cybersecurity breach that potentially exposed the Social Security numbers and other personal information of 143 million people. The breach has spurred two dozen lawsuits in federal court involving lawyers who want to represent many plaintiffs. But it tends to be tough for individuals to sue companies like Equifax on their own.
“Three days ago I realized I should definitely be doing something for this,” Joshua Browder, DoNotPay’s creator, told Yahoo Finance. “I was doing research and I found no one is going down to small claims court on the state level.”
Despite the pending federal lawsuits, Browder sees small claims court as the ideal way to deal with this, without involving costly lawyers or complex cases that could last years.
“I think people should be empowered to do it themselves,” Browder said. “Instead of taking Equifax to federal court, they could take Equifax to small claims. In a lot of these states you’re not allowed lawyers, there are no legal fees, and state judges are more sympathetic and more fair. They don’t take kindly to big corporations pushing people around.”
Class action cases generally won’t affect a consumer’s right to take a corporation to small claims court, provided the company does business in that state. However, you may have to opt-out of a class action to be eligible, something for which DoNotPay might have to write another bot.
“The consumer can definitely go forward in small claims court, even if a class action is pending,” said F. Paul Bland, an attorney and executive director for Public Justice. “There’s no chance a class action would bar a consumer from bringing such a case.”
How the chatbot works
Earlier this year, Browder had developed a custom software that allows him to quickly create a “chatbot,” a program that asks users questions. Using the answers, the chatbot can create useful forms — in this case, the documents needed to take Equifax to court.
With a team of mostly volunteer lawyers, Browder worked around-the-clock to get this new Equifax-suing robot on his DoNotPay website.
“I thought, what if there were a way to file small claims in all 50 states? So I researched a process and found it’d be easy to do,” Browder said. “The small claims court is rigorous and efficient.”
The hard part, said Browder, was figuring out who to sue and the individual states’ quirks in the small claims suit-filing procedure. California is easy, but states like Texas make it very difficult, requiring a plaintiff to create their own lawsuit and complaint. The other challenge is figuring out where to serve.
In terms of damages, different states cap the amount differently, but somewhere between $10,000 to $15,000 is standard. Justifying these numbers is easy, according to Browder. “Our response is, we seek the maximum because of the permanent damage,” he said. “But in reality I think it varies. I think a lot of people will be hurt by this and will be able to demonstrate if someone has a $15,000 fraud there’s no reason they won’t get $15,000 back.”
DoNotPay does not make money or receive commissions so far, although Browder said perhaps an ad-revenue-based business model may appeal in the future. For Browder, a senior at Stanford, it’s more about the principle than money. In his view, DoNotPay can make a difference by handling the hard parts so a wronged consumer can more easily seek justice.
“It finds all the details of who exactly to sue and who to give the papers to,” Browder said. “All you have to do is provide your name and phone number. Then it spits out 8 pages with instructions and necessary forms. It probably takes about 20 seconds.”
After you have the pages, you take the forms to court and they mail the parties a court date, which may be within in a month or two. The ace-in-the-hole for small claims, Browders said, is that the defendant isn’t allowed to recoup legal costs — making it far less risky if the consumer loses.
A future vehicle for consumers vs. corporations?
Although comparatively user-friendly, the standard amount of effort required to go to small claims court is high enough to make it rare.
“Hardly any consumers go to small claims court, in the scope of things,” Bland said. “But remember, 143 million people were involved in this breach. If a few thousand people filed small claims cases, that would be enormous by historic standards.”
If 5,000 people were to win $10,000 in small claims court, that would be a $50 million. Still, that would be a fraction of those involved and a small financial blow to Equifax.
“It’s almost de minimus compared to the scale of the problem,” Bland said. “A class action could potentially address this for everyone exposed.”
Browder is looking past the specific matter of data security towards the limits of his service. Previously, the app created letters with legalese, citing relevant statues of tenant law and municipal parking rules. Completing 8-page PDF forms to make a ready-made lawsuit is uncharted territory.
“This is a really a test for me,” he said. “Should I open myself up for corporate problems as the next issue to solve?”
The lawsuits are by no means a slam dunk. Besides having to show up at the hearing, the plaintiff will be obligated to justify the restitution.
“The trouble is that it’s hard for the plaintiff to show they’ve been injured,” said Brian Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt Law School specializing in class action litigation. “If you have to change your credit card agencies or contact agencies, that’s something. You can go to court and say, ‘my time is worth X, I want that back.’ But someone’s going to have to articulate those arguments.”
If people can’t do that, or if the judges want detail, then this bot may just be a “paper tiger,” according to Fitzpatrick. “On the other hand, the defendants have to do something to respond, otherwise they’d be in default,” he said.
Individual lawsuits are rare, so corporations strongly prefer them over class actions, which don’t require much consumer initiative. But if somehow individuals started filing lawsuits — perhaps thanks to DoNotPay — the entire landscape could change.
“In a world where a lot of people could sue on their own, I think the defendants are going to like class actions better,” said Fitzpatrick. “They’re not going to want to send a lawyer to every small claims hearings. If someone can figure out a way to make small stakes claims litigable a reality, then I really wonder if it changes the politics of the class action debate.”
Whether it’s a success will depend on how people use it, and whether they win. But at the very least, Browder noted, this specific issue makes an enticing opportunity to try given the visibility, size, and the safety. “There’s no risk in this,” he said. “It’s not like Equifax can say this is unreasonable.”