‘Professional plaintiff’ uses credit law to threaten companies, win $230,000 in settlements

'Professional plaintiff' uses credit law to threaten companies, win $230,000 in settlementsCory Groshek is the fitness guru and video blogger Low Carb Cory on YouTube.

Cory Groshek thought he’d caught a big fish, and he wasn’t afraid to say it.

In January 2015, Groshek sent a 2,300-word missive to representatives for Time Warner Cable, threatening to sue for violations of a consumer-protection law called the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The message relayed Groshek’s confidence that he could win a huge verdict at trial — “think upwards of $5-10 million,” he wrote — unless the company paid him a six-figure settlement to go away.

“Make no mistake about it,” wrote Groshek, 33, of Green Bay. “I have all of the leverage in this situation and TWC has none.”

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Within a recent 18-month stretch, Groshek applied to 562 jobs, including one at Time Warner Cable. But it doesn’t appear he had any intention of keeping a job long-term. Instead, his aim seems to be to catch companies violating the law during the hiring process, so he can threaten a class-action lawsuit and demand a settlement.

Based on newly filed court records, his plan is working.

Documents show Groshek has used the tactic to extract at least $230,000 in legal settlements from businesses across the country. Groshek has admitted to threatening more than 40 companies — including about 15 headquartered in Wisconsin — with class-action lawsuits, leading to claims that he is extorting businesses for technical violations of the federal law.

The full extent of Groshek’s efforts largely remained in legal shadows until late May, when Time Warner Cable’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the case. In the motion, the company’s lawyers wrote that Groshek admitted during a deposition that he has applied for hundreds of jobs, hoping to initiate the background check process that could lead to an FCRA violation.

Under the law, companies wishing to obtain an individual’s consumer credit reports — a routine part of the hiring process — must make a “clear and conspicuous disclosure” of their intention to do so. In the deposition, Groshek said he has taught himself to spot when companies fail to properly make that disclosure, burying it in fine print or several pages of forms.

If Groshek sees the violation, he threatens to sue on behalf of all recently hired employees. Each employee could be entitled to up to $1,000, giving Groshek leverage to negotiate a personal settlement.

So far, Groshek has threatened to sue at least 46 companies that performed a background check on him. About 20 companies paid relatively small settlements — between $5,000 and $35,000 — to cut off the threat, Groshek said. Three companies didn’t settle and have been sued in federal court by Groshek. Those cases are all pending.

Lawyers representing some of the companies say Groshek is taking advantage of a technicality, unable to prove he suffered any harm. Officials at Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation, a Madison-based student loan nonprofit, said Groshek’s lawsuit against them “comes down to a one-sentence liability waiver” in a disclosure form.

“There is absolutely no indication that anyone was harmed or confused by the sentence,” company officials said in a statement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The company has agreed to a preliminary settlement of $267,600, with Groshek getting $7,200 and nearly 900 prospective employees getting $300 each.

Lawyers for Time Warner Cable have gone further. In a motion to stop Groshek from leading a class-action lawsuit, they argued Groshek doesn’t care about the company’s other employees, as evidenced by his demands for settlements paid only to him.

“Here, there is not just a risk that (Groshek) will try to sell out the class — he has already tried to do so,” lawyers for Time Warner Cable wrote in a motion filed last year.

The technique, Time Warner Cable’s lawyers wrote last month, has become “a very successful business for Groshek.”

Lawyers and business officials who work in employment law believe there’s a growing cadre of plaintiffs looking to take advantage of FCRA violations. According to WebRecon, a Michigan-based company that tracks consumer litigation, nearly 400 FCRA class-action lawsuits were filed in 2015, almost double the number filed in 2014.

So far, the plaintiffs seem to be winning. Federal judges have routinely refused to dismiss FCRA lawsuits. Unable to get the cases tossed, several companies across the country have paid out seven-figure settlements in lawsuits just like the ones filed by Groshek.

A ‘Professional Plaintiff’

Groshek didn’t return multiple telephone calls and emails seeking comment. When reached at his home in the shadow of Lambeau Field, he accused the Journal Sentinel of stalking him and questioned how a reporter found his email address. (It’s published on one of his Facebook pages.)

“It’s litigation where we’re on the precipice of a decision going one way or another, and it hasn’t happened yet,” Groshek said. “So really, in my opinion, there is no big story.”

He referred questions to his lawyers, who didn’t respond to multiple phone and email messages in the past two weeks.

Little in Groshek’s background would portend his sudden evolution into a prolific litigator.

According to his Time Warner Cable job application, which is included in his complaint, Groshek graduated from Stevens Point Area High School in 2001 and earned an associate’s degree from Mid-State Technical College in Wisconsin Rapids in 2003. He spent about 71/2 years working as a customer service representative for WPS Health Insurance, then left in 2012 for a similar job at Lands’ End in Stevens Point.

In the meantime, Groshek had several side gigs, largely based on his self-burnished image. He’s the rapper Cory Crush on Facebook, the fitness guru and video blogger Low Carb Cory on YouTube, and the author of scary stories published online under his legal name.

Then, in early 2014, Groshek learned about FCRA. According to a Time Warner Cable motion, Groshek admitted in his deposition that he “discovered the potential to bring FCRA claims after talking to an attorney” and “educated himself on the requirements of the FCRA.”

Groshek left Lands’ End in May 2014 and became what Time Warner Cable’s lawyers termed a “professional plaintiff.”

In the October 2015 deposition, Groshek said he would scour online employment websites, such as Career Builder and Indeed, and apply for hundreds of open positions.

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When companies expressed interest in him and asked permission to perform a background check — typically after he received a conditional job offer — Groshek would watch to see if they violated the FCRA’s disclosure requirements.

Groshek believed the FCRA required a separate, single-page disclosure of a company’s intent to obtain consumer credit reports. Some companies, Groshek found, included the disclosure in other documents. Some companies included it in an online application program.

Even if he got the job, Groshek would fail to show up for work or quickly quit, then make his settlement demand, according to the court documents.

During the deposition, Groshek conceded that he didn’t lose out on a job with Time Warner Cable because of a faulty background check. Still, Groshek said his legal rights were violated — and that he should be compensated.

“And so in that regard,” Groshek said, “I do believe that I did suffer, potentially, damages that could be remedied, that’s granted in a court of law.”

The full transcript of Groshek’s deposition is under seal, leaving many details of his process unclear. Excerpts of the deposition were included in recent court filings.

The Legal Battles

In court records, Groshek said he has threatened to sue companies as big as Target and Starbucks. He’s threatened to sue Goodwill Industries and a small business that helps veterans get jobs. He’s threatened to sue outfits in Milwaukee and Stevens Point and Appleton and Oshkosh. He’s threatened to sue six companies in Brown County, including a resort located two miles from his house, which records show he bought in December for $140,000.

Groshek settled nearly every case without filing a lawsuit. Time Warner Cable didn’t settle, and so when Groshek filed a class-action lawsuit, the company’s lawyers could depose him and publicly disclose some documents — including his demand for a settlement.

The demand email shows that Groshek, who was offered an $11-an-hour job with Time Warner Cable, threatened to file a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all of the company’s recent hires. It also shows Groshek willing to abandon that plan if the company paid him a settlement.

In the email, Groshek trumpeted his knowledge of the FCRA, and that he had two law firms “which intend to work in tandem to promptly sue” Time Warner Cable if the company didn’t immediately settle.

“I understand that you may be tempted to try to make this issue disappear for a token payment of, say, $500 to $2,500, but I will have you know that such offers would meet my definition of ‘lowball’ offers, and thus will be rejected immediately,” Groshek said.

In court records, Time Warner Cable’s lawyers have argued Groshek shouldn’t be allowed to sue because he intentionally initiated any alleged violations. They’ve also alleged Groshek violated state extortion laws.

The email, they wrote, “confirms that he may try to duplicitously use their rights as ‘leverage’ to line his own pockets.”

Groshek’s lawyers counter that Time Warner Cable continues to “attack and vilify Groshek …to avoid discussing the real issue — its violation of the law.” They disputed the allegation that he’s a “professional plaintiff,” noting he’s filed only three lawsuits.

Law On His Side?

Time Warner Cable’s claim that Groshek broke the law was met with skepticism by Milwaukee-based U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa, who is presiding over the case.

In a July 2015 order on Time Warner Cable’s motion to deny class-action status, Randa wrote he “doubts that the Milwaukee County District Attorney would devote time and resources to prosecuting Groshek on the tenuous theory that a pre-suit settlement demand qualifies as extortion.” Randa also noted that any pre-suit settlement wouldn’t have stopped other Time Warner Cable employees from suing the company.

And as Madison-based U.S. District Judge James Peterson, who is presiding over the Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation case, wrote in a November 2015 order, the courts have been split on the merits of such FCRA claims. He wrote that “a substantial majority of cases that have considered the issue have gone Groshek’s way.”

Indeed, several companies across the nation have received unfavorable rulings and ended up settling class-action FCRA cases. Swift Transportation paid out $4.4 million. Home Depot shelled out $3 million. Domino’s settled for $2.5 million.

Melissa Sorenson, executive director for the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, said the settlements have emboldened plaintiffs and their lawyers, leading to a notable increase in FCRA class-action lawsuits in the past several years.

“As soon as you have settlements in the millions of dollars, it certainly opens up interests in class-action lawsuits,” Sorenson said. “And it’s opened up an entire area of practice.”

She added that companies often settle because it’s cheaper than taking the case to trial, with the risk of a jury, particularly if the business has insurance to cover the costs.

No future court dates have been set in Groshek’s case against Time Warner Cable, which is preliminarily scheduled for trial in February. Judging by his email to Time Warner Cable’s lawyers, Groshek has little doubt that he’d prevail should his case ever reach a jury.

“I would prefer that we avoid what could be a multi-year trial,” Groshek wrote. “But if TWC wishes to be combative and fight a losing battle, I am more than willing to do whatever is necessary to see that justice is served in this situation.”

What Is The FCRA?

Enacted in 1970, the Fair Credit Reporting Act is a consumer protection law that sets out rules for credit reporting agencies. The law promotes accurate reporting and dissemination of consumer report information, such as credit histories, and gives citizens certain privacy rights. In part, the law restricts employers from obtaining the credit reports of individuals without their consent. It also gives citizens the right to dispute information contained in their credit report and requires credit reporting agencies to change incorrect information.

The Part Of The Law That Is Cited

“… A person may not procure a consumer report, or cause a consumer report to be procured, for employment purposes with respect to any consumer, unless a clear and conspicuous disclosure has been made in writing to the consumer at any time before the report is procured or caused to be procured, in a document that consists solely of the disclosure …”

A Look At The Legal Filings

In recent years, Corey Groshek of Green Bay has threatened to sue at least 46 companies that performed a background check on him. About 20 companies paid relatively small settlements, according to documents filed in federal court. Three companies didn’t settle and have been sued in federal court by Groshek. Those cases are all pending.

Companies that have been sued:

■ Alliance Hospitality Management

■ Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation

■ Time Warner Cable

Wisconsin-based companies threatened with a lawsuit:

■ Alta Resources (Neenah)

■ Ardor Agency (Greenfield)

■ Associated Bank (Green Bay)

■ Bay Event Marketing (De Pere)

■ Eastbay (Wausau)

■ ImproMed (Oshkosh)

■ Lands’ End (Dodgeville)

■ Ministry Health Care (Milwaukee)

■ Shopko (Green Bay)

■ Team Schierl Companies (Stevens Point)

■ Total Med Staffing (Appleton)

■ Travel Guard (Stevens Point)

■ Tundra Lodge (Green Bay)

■ Wisconsin Auto Title Loans (Green Bay)

■ Yanda’s Distributing (Green Bay)

Notable national companies threatened with a lawsuit:

■ Burlington Coat Factory

■ Goodwill Industries

■ hhgregg

■ Humana

■ Nielsen

■ Sherwin-Williams

■ Starbucks

■ Target

■ Toys R’ Us

■ U.S. Cellular

[H/T Journal Sentinel]

 

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