Litigation Checks and Civil Record Searches are Problematic
Jan 31, 2018
Searching for civil records and litigation checks can largely be a waste of dollars and time. As a consumer reporting agency (CRA), Reliable Background Screening understands this. Sadly, many other companies will sell civil record searches or litigation searches, while disavowing that they are a CRA. By stating they are NOT a CRA, these other companies sell information essentially as a data dump, and refuse any responsibility for providing either false positives or false omissions.
Many individuals believe there is a "complete litigation" check that is possible. Unfortunately most companies will sell civil court record searches, and not explain the difficulties involved. I prefer to explain the shortfalls of performing civil record searches, so that our clients and prospective clients will understand that even if performed, civil records may be missed.
There is a reason why all three credit bureaus settled a lawsuit and changed the way they report public record information. Below are links to two articles I wrote on this subject. Although these articles focus on the tenant screening industry, the issues exposed involve all users of credit reports. The main take-away here is that civil judgments and litigation checks (which are and start off as civil records) are no longer being reported by the credit bureaus (ever since July 1, 2017). The credit bureaus have done this because they admit that they cannot effectively distinguish if a civil judgment/civil record belongs to any specific individual.
Having stated the above, civil records can be searched, but it is a challenge especially with common names. If there are companies, e.g., previous employers or other specific companies that you are particularly concerned about, it can help refine the search, because then not only the plaintiff (the individual) can be searched, but in combination with the defendant (an employer and/or other company that may be of concern). Note, a civil records search can be performed only on the individual's name (without a defendant company name), but it is again more difficult to know if you have the "right" person, especially with a common name, and even with not-so-common names.
Further, civil searches must be done at each jurisdiction level, e.g., each county typically. There is no national database that can effectively provide this information. Also, the Federal Court System requires a separate civil records search, in addition to the county civil records search. The number of counties would be based upon addresses uncovered by an Address Locator "Social Search" product and/or if there were specific counties that you or your company deemed significant to research. These civil record searches can become expensive due to the number needed, and no matter what any company does, civil records might still be missed, due to the lack of PII (personally identifiable information, typically no complete Social Security Number and no Date of Birth).
For clients that understand the deficiencies involved with performing civil records searches, we can perform them, although we discourage our clients due to the issues described above. As many counties have public websites, a better solution may be to simply search for civil records yourself, and not hire a third-party company. If you do hire a company, ensure that you use a CRA, because those companies must adhere to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (versus non-CRAs that will sell you a data dump).
Posted by: Rudy Troisi. President and CEO, Reliable Background Screening.