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The era of the Internet and endless databases has produced a budding phenomenon: blacklisting. And that is leading to a not-so-new phenomenon: lawsuits. Until last month, doctors could log on to a now defunct Texas-based Web site to check the litigation history of patients. Companies like Registry SafeRent and First American Registry provide a similar service to landlords nationwide, reporting whether a potential tenant has a prior history of eviction proceedings. The idea of “blacklisted” patients and tenants has generated criticism and even class actions. Plaintiffs lawyers say there is a problem in the trend toward landlords and doctors using reporting services to weed out litigious renters and patients to minimize their risks of being sued. But lawyers defending the services say their clients do not “blacklist” anyone: They merely report what is openly available in public court records. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) controls companies engaged in collecting and selling consumer reports. The statute requires that the reported information is accurate and complete, and that a remedy is available for those who seek to dispute the information. “Without FCRA, gathering and disbursement of this type of extremely personal information would violate the privacy laws of all the states,” said Dallas solo practitioner Stephen Gardner. Gardner and a handful of other lawyers were preparing to file suit against Doctorsknowus.com, the first consumer reporting service for doctors, before it folded amid criticism on March 9. For a membership fee of $4.95, doctors could perform up to 250 name searches to find plaintiffs, their lawyers and expert witnesses in malpractice lawsuits in Texas and other states. The lawyers preparing to sue contended that the site was illegal because it did not have procedures in place for consumers to get copies to challenge the information. Similar allegations are the crux of two class actions filed against companies that sell tenant reports to landlords. One was filed under state law in California, Decker v. U.D. Registry, No. 01 CC-07725 (Orange Co., Calif., Super. Ct. 2001), and the other in federal court in New York. Both lawsuits allege that the companies report inaccurate information and do not have parameters in place to protect consumers. Charles Newman of the St. Louis office of Bryan Cave is defending American First Registry in the federal class action, White v. First American Registry, No. 1611-04 (S.D.N.Y.). Newman asserted that his client is in compliance with FCRA, and serves the legitimate needs of landlords who have a right, and a duty, to screen potential tenants. “My client doesn’t black mark anyone,” Newman said. “It just reports what is in the public record.” Newman argues that First American was not inaccurate in reporting that the plaintiff, Adam White, had been involved in housing litigation in 1996. It amended the report promptly, at the written request of White. Ironically, however, White’s case still appears as an active file in the housing court’s automated phone system. His lawyer, James Fishman of Fishman & Neil in New York, said there ought to be a sign on the courthouse door that says, “Warning: Use of these facilities could be hazardous to your ability to secure housing in the future.” Tenants are unfairly disadvantaged for having been sued by a landlord, despite the fact that there may be a number of good reasons why a tenant might withhold rent, Fishman said. The housing reports contain cursory docket information that was not intended for mass market, he adds. The companies buy the information in bulk, whereas the average person would only be allowed to see five case files at a time. “One solution is for the court to simply make housing court records available on the same basis that they are made available to any individual,” said Fishman. But Newman said that the very notion violates the tenets of an open court system. “Lots of companies for legitimate business reasons want access and should have access to that information.” Plaintiffs lawyers assert that most consumers would prefer not to give them access. “Consumers do not want this information given out,” said Gardner. “Not because it is good, bad or indifferent. But because it is private.”

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