June 28, 2011 at 2:26 PM ET
OMAHA, Neb. — On the fourth floor of Douglas County Courthouse, Jaimee Napp opened a new front in the war on identity theft. She did something every ID theft victim has probably dreamed of doing: Napp sued her imposter in civil court for damages.
This first battle didn't go well.
District Judge John Hartigan interrupted the closing arguments by beginning a debate on the meaning of term "identity theft" ("It's not like someone took her soul."). After Napp's therapist said she was suffering from symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, defense attorney Tim Mikulicz said that claim was a "slap in the face to every soldier returning from Iraq."
Civil court, for now, is unfriendly territory for identity theft victims.
In fact, a new study being released this week shows that ID theft victims are denied rights granted other crime victims — like restitution hearings or notice of court appearances — in 14 states.
After a two-year battle for her day in civil court, Rapp spent nearly two hours justifying expenses and allowed her therapist to share intimate details about her sense of paranoia following her bout with ID theft. Legally speaking, it seemed to get her nowhere.
There's no question about the guilt of Napp's defendant, Jackie Brown, who was Napp's co-worker in a small Omaha retail shop six years ago. Brown rifled through the firm's files and stole Napp's Social Security number and gave it to her then-boyfriend. The stolen data was then used in attempts to open credit card accounts. Brown said in court Monday that she was a methamphetamine addict at the time and didn't remember many details of the incident.
Napp says trauma from the ID theft led her to feeling unsafe at work and led to bouts of paranoia throughout her life. She regularly suspected she was being followed when she drove home from work, often circling the block several times. She suffered nightmares. She entered counseling, ultimately undergoing 44 sessions of treatment for what was diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. Ultimately, she was fired from her job at ConAgra Foods for non-performance.
Brown said in court Monday that she spent five months in jail after pleading guilty to theft by deception, then spent none more months in a halfway house after completing a drug treatment program. She said she's now "clean" and has gainful employment.
Napp described the period after the crime as a slow descent into psychological torture. She was worried about all the other co-workers who could access her personal information and worried about possible retribution from her imposter.
"I felt like I couldn't trust my co-workers, my managers," she said. "I wore an iPod all the time so no one would talk to me. ... I changed my hair color. I sold my car because she knew what kind of car I drive," Napp said. "This incident changed me. ... I wish I could just move on, but this incident will follow me forever."
While Napp's imposter has not attempted any additional acts of identity theft, a bounced check ended up on Napp's credit record in 2009 after someone paid for gas in nearby Council Bluffs using a check with her Social Security number on it.
Napp asked the court to grant her damages of $46,000, accounting for out-of-pocket expenses like credit monitoring, the costs of therapy treatments, lost time to deal with the mess and lost wages.
It's impossible to predict how the judge might ultimately rule when he hands down his decision in a week or so, but Hartigan's tone during closing arguments gave Napp and her attorney, Harris Kuhn, little hope that she would win.
"There is no law in Nebraska which makes this an easy argument," Kuhn said.
While the logic of forcing someone to pay for damages caused by committing ID theft might seem sound, Kuhn said the only legal argument available to him under Nebraska law was a so-called "conversion" claim, which translates loosely as the civil equivalent of criminal theft. But a conversion claim — which traditionally might involve disputes such as a neighbor's unjustly milking another's cows — requires establishment of damages. Despite 77 pages of receipts, phone bills and health care records, Hartigan seemed unconvinced that any real damages had occurred.
Napp "has not testified to any loss," he said. "She hasn't been charged more for credit."
The judge also didn't interrupt during the defense attorney's closing argument, as Mikulicz said Napp should "move on" from the incident.
"I don't think it's an act to make you jump up and down and say, 'That's outrageous behavior,'" said Mikulicz said. "Again, with all due respect, saying she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is a slap in the face to every soldier who's served in Iraq, in Vietnam, in Korea ... and to every rape victim."
Napp openly wept as he finished. But later, she was philosophical about her day in court.
"Even though things didn't go well today, I think I did something great today," she said.
After two years of therapy, Napp began working as a consultant and slowly gained a reputation as an identity theft victim expert — a path her therapist said was part of her healing process. Napp works for the federal government as an expert consultant on victim rights. She is also head of the Identity Theft Action Council of Nebraska, has testified before Congress and has urged the National Crime Victim Law Institute to study ID theft victims' legal rights.
That agency's research, released Tuesday, shows that in 14 states, ID theft victims aren't recognized as "victims" under the state's victim rights statute — including Nebraska. In many states, victim status grants a clear legal path for a civil action designed to recover money damages.
"I just have to keep fighting," Napp said. "I'm hopeful at some point judges will understand and be more educated about this type of crime and there will be different outcomes."