In Hinkle v. Midland Credit Management, Inc., 2016 WL 3672112, at *4-8 (C.A.11 (Ga.), 2016), the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed summary judgment for a debt buyer on the plaintiff’s reinvestigation under FCRA, finding that more investigation was required than checking the dispute against its electronic records.
When the CRAs informed Midland that Hinkle disputed the GE/Meijer and T-Mobile accounts, Midland conducted an investigation that consisted—at most—of (1) double-checking the information it had reported to the CRAs against its own electronic-data files; and (2) sending Hinkle a letter telling her that “it would be helpful to have a copy of any documentation you may have that supports your dispute.”7 The district court held that these two measures amounted to sufficient investigation under § 1681s-2(b) on the facts of this case. Hinkle contends that § 1681s-2(b) requires down-the-line buyers to investigate mistaken-identity disputes by verifying the identity of the alleged debtor against account-level documentation (not just against electronic-data files). She argues that because Midland failed to obtain such documentation in response to Hinkle’s dispute, a reasonable jury could find that the investigation Midland conducted was insufficient to satisfy § 1681s-2(b). The scope of the duty to investigate under § 1681s-2(b) is an issue of first impression in the Eleventh Circuit. The FCRA does not specify the nature and extent of the “investigation” a furnisher of information must conduct under § 1681s-2(b). The structure of the statute, however, suggests that the duty of a furnisher under § 1681s-2(b) is a component of the larger reinvestigation duty imposed by § 1681i(a) on CRAs themselves. See id. § 1681s-2(b)(2) (requiring furnishers to complete their investigation and report its results “before the expiration of the period … within which the [CRA] is required to” resolve the dispute). We have previously stated that § 1681i(a) imposes “a duty … to make reasonable efforts to investigate and correct inaccurate or incomplete information brought to its attention by the consumer.” Cahlin v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 936 F.2d 1151, 1160 (11th Cir. 1991). Given the interrelated nature of §§ 1681s-2(b) and 1681i(a), we conclude that “reasonableness” is an appropriate touchstone for evaluating investigations under § 1681s-2(b). See Chiang v. Verizon New England, Inc., 595 F.3d 26, 37 (1st Cir. 2010); Gorman v. Wolpoff & Abramson, LLP, 584 F.3d 1147, 1157 (9th Cir. 2009); Westra, 409 F.3d at 827; Johnson v. MBNA Am. Bank, NA, 357 F.3d 426, 431 (4th Cir. 2004). We emphasize that what constitutes a “reasonable investigation” will vary depending on the circumstances of the case and whether the investigation is being conducted by a CRA under § 1681i(a), or a furnisher of information under § 1681s-2(b). See Chiang, 595 F.3d at 38 (“[W]hat is a reasonable investigation by a furnisher may vary depending on the circumstances.”); Gorman, 584 F.3d at 1160 (“[T]he reasonableness of an investigation depends on the facts of the particular case ….”). Whether a furnisher’s investigation is reasonable will depend in part on the status of the furnisher—as an original creditor, a collection agency collecting on behalf of the original creditor, a debt buyer, or a down-the-line buyer—and on the quality of documentation available to the furnisher. See, e.g., Johnson, 357 F.3d at 431 (reasoning that a jury could find a § 1681s-2(b) violation where the original creditor ended its investigation before “consult[ing] underlying documents such as account applications”). The facts of this case require us to determine whether a reasonable jury could find that Midland—a down-the-line buyer with “as is” purchase agreements and no account-level documentation—fell short of the reasonable investigation standard when it relied on internal records to verify the identity of an alleged debtor. Section 1681s-2(b) contemplates three potential ending points to reinvestigation: verification of accuracy, a determination of inaccuracy or incompleteness, or a determination that the information “cannot be verified.” See 15 U.S.C. § 1681s-2(b)(1)(E). Midland argues that once it compared the information the CRAs possessed with its own internal records and confirmed a match, it was entitled to report the accounts as having been “verified.” Hinkle argues that the records Midland possessed were insufficient to verify the accounts and that, absent additional proof, Midland should have reported the results of its reinvestigation as “cannot be verified.” We agree with Hinkle that Midland is not entitled to summary judgment under § 1681s-2(b) on the facts of this case. . . .These definitions support the conclusion that § 1681s-2(b) requires some degree of careful inquiry by furnishers of information. In particular, when a furnisher does not already possess evidence establishing that an item of disputed information is true, § 1681s-2(b) requires the furnisher to seek out and obtain such evidence before reporting the information as “verified.” See id. at 431 (reversing summary judgment because a reasonable jury could find a violation of § 1681s-2(b) where the furnisher “d[id] not look beyond the information contained in the [internal data file] and never consult [ed] underlying documents such as account applications”); cf. Cahlin, 936 F.2d at 1160 (observing that a claim for failure to investigate “is properly raised when a particular credit report contains a factual deficiency or error that could have been remedied by uncovering additional facts”). The requirement to uncover additional facts will be more or less intensive depending on what evidence the furnisher already possesses. For instance, a debt buyer with account-level documentation or more comprehensive warranties from its predecessor debt buyer might be in a completely different position than Midland. Section 1681s-2(b) does not impose an unduly burdensome investigation requirement on furnishers; rather, it presents them with a choice regarding how they handle disputed information. The first option is to satisfy § 1681s-2(b) by conducting an investigation, verifying the disputed information, and reporting to the CRAs that the information has been verified. Verification might be accomplished by uncovering documentary evidence that is sufficient to prove that the information is true. See Johnson, 357 F.3d at 431. Or it might be accomplished by relying on personal knowledge sufficient to establish the truth of the information. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4) (summary judgment affidavit); Fed. R. Evid. 602 (trial testimony). When a furnisher reports that disputed information has been verified, the question of whether the furnisher behaved reasonably will turn on whether the furnisher acquired sufficient evidence to support the conclusion that the information was true. This is a factual question, and it will normally be reserved for trial. See Westra, 409 F.3d at 827 (“Whether a defendant’s investigation is reasonable is a factual question normally reserved for trial.”). The second way for a furnisher to satisfy § 1681s-2(b) is to conduct an investigation and conclude, based on that investigation, that the disputed information is unverifiable. Furnishers can avail themselves of this option if they determine that the evidence necessary to verify disputed information either does not exist or is too burdensome to acquire. Having made such a determination, furnishers are entitled to cease investigation and notify the CRAs that the information “cannot be verified.” See 15 U.S.C. § 1681s-2(b)(1)(E). When a furnisher reports that disputed information “cannot be verified,” the question of whether the furnisher complied with § 1681s-2(b) will likely turn on whether the furnisher reasonably determined that further investigation would be fruitless or unduly burdensome.8 The final way to satisfy § 1681s-2(b) is to conduct an investigation and conclude that the disputed information is “inaccurate or incomplete.” Id. This framework reflects the fact that § 1681s-2(b) is designed not only to exclude false information from credit reports, but also to prevent the reporting of unverifiable information. When a furnisher determines that disputed information is false or “cannot be verified,” the furnisher must notify the CRAs of this result pursuant to § 1681s-2(b)(1). The furnisher must also “as appropriate, based on the results of the reinvestigation promptly … modify[,] … delete [or] permanently block the reporting” of that information to CRAs. Id. § 1681s-2(b)(1)(E). What “the results of the reinvestigation” require may vary depending on the nature of the disputed information. But when a furnisher is unable to verify the identity of an alleged debtor, we are persuaded by the parallel structure of §§ 1681s and 1681i that the appropriate response will be to delete the account or cease reporting it entirely. See id. § 1681i(d) (“Following any deletion of information which is found to be inaccurate or whose accuracy can no longer be verified [the CRA shall] furnish notification that the item has been deleted … to any person specifically designated by the consumer ….” (emphasis added)). Similarly, when a CRA receives notice that an account is unverifiable, it must “promptly delete that item of information from the file of the consumer.” See id. § 1681i(a)(5)(A)(i). Lest this result appear too strict, we hasten to observe that even though a furnisher that ends an investigation without verifying a disputed account must cease reporting the account to CRAs, § 1681s-2(b) does not require the furnisher to cease dunning or otherwise attempting to collect the debt. The requirement to delete or modify the offending information is limited to the credit-reporting context. See id. . . . Faced with a mistaken-identity dispute, Midland investigated the dispute by confirming that the identifying information possessed by the CRAs was the same as the identifying information contained in its internal data files. The information contained in the data files was obtained from AIS and DRS—not from the original creditors—and was the same information Midland had reported to the CRAs in the first place. Midland did not attempt to consult account-level documentation to confirm that the “Terri Hinkle” and “Teri Hinkle” who incurred the debts in 2005-2006 were the same “Teri Lynn Hinkle” it was dunning six years later. A reasonable jury could find that such a cursory investigation was unreasonable on the facts of this case. A jury could find that the documentation Midland reviewed was insufficient to prove that the GE/Meijer and T-Mobile accounts belonged to Hinkle and that Midland therefore had a duty to report the accounts as “cannot be verified.” See 15 U.S.C. § 1681s-2(b)(1)(E). A jury could also find that because Midland retained the right to seek account-level documentation through its agreements with AIS and DRS, Midland behaved unreasonably when it reported the accounts as “verified” without first exercising those rights. . . Midland advances two arguments in support of its contention that the facts of this case warranted less-extensive investigation. Midland first argues that the act of sending a letter to Hinkle shifted the burden to Hinkle to substantiate her dispute. The letter in question stated that “[a]s part of our investigation … it would be helpful to have a copy of any documentation you may have that supports your dispute.” Midland argues that when Hinkle failed to support her dispute by sending Midland a police report or a signed fraud affidavit, Midland was entitled to cease its investigation and inform the CRAs that the debts were accurate and had been “verified.” Although the failure to respond to a letter requesting assistance might be relevant to a jury’s determination of whether Midland was entitled to report the debt as “verified”—as evidence, for example, that Hinkle’s dispute was disingenuous—we are unprepared to say that it is dispositive at summary judgment. Midland cites nothing in the FCRA that permits a furnisher to shift its burden of “reasonable investigation” to the consumer in the case of a § 1681s-2(b) dispute. And even if there were a scenario in which burden shifting were appropriate, that result would make little sense in a case like this one—a mistaken-identity dispute in which the furnisher is in a far better position than the alleged debtor to confirm the actual owner of the account. In any event, the letter at issue in this case did not inform Hinkle that she was required to send documentation. Rather, the letter suggested that “it would be helpful” if she did so. A reasonable jury could find that Midland acted unreasonably when it conditioned further investigation on a response from Hinkle without informing Hinkle of that requirement. Midland also argues that its investigative burden was less extensive because the notice of dispute it received from the CRAs stated only that the GE/Meijer and T-Mobile accounts were “[n]ot his/hers.” See Gorman, 584 F.3d at 1157 (“The pertinent question is … whether the furnisher’s procedures were reasonable in light of what it learned about the nature of the dispute from the description in the CRA’s notice of dispute.”); Westra, 409 F.3d at 827 (“[The] investigation in this case was reasonable given the scant information [the furnisher] received regarding the nature of [the] dispute.”). Although we agree that whether an investigation is reasonable will depend on what the furnisher knows about the dispute, we reject the proposition that a furnisher may truncate its investigation simply because the CRA failed to exhaustively describe the dispute in its § 1681i(a)(2) notice. See Gorman, 584 F.3d at 1157 n.11 (explaining that although “the notice determines the nature of the dispute to be investigated” it does not “cabin[ ] the scope of the investigation once undertaken”). When a furnisher has access to dispute-related information beyond the information provided by the CRA, it will often be reasonable for the furnisher to review that additional information and conduct its investigation accordingly. Here, the CRAs notified Midland variously that Hinkle “states inaccurate information,” “[c]laims true identity fraud, account fraudulently opened,” and disputes the accounts as “[n]ot his/hers.” They further instructed Midland to “[v]erify” the information reported. Midland was also aware of the basis for dispute because Hinkle herself told Midland repeatedly that the GE/Meijer and T-Mobile accounts did not belong to her. A jury could find that these communications were enough to convey to Midland that the basis of dispute was mistaken identity or fraud. Midland finally asserts that we should affirm the district court on the alternate basis that Hinkle cannot prove a “willful” violation of § 1681s-2(b). But a reasonable jury could find that Midland either knowingly or recklessly reported debts as “verified” without obtaining sufficient documentation to support that determination. See Safeco Ins. Co. of Am. v. Burr, 551 U.S. 47, 56-57, 127 S. Ct. 2201, 2208 (2007) (holding that liability for “willfully” failing to comply with the FCRA extends not only to acts known to violate the FCRA, but also to the reckless disregard of a statutory duty). First, the fact that Midland negotiated clauses in the purchase agreements requiring the sellers to assist with obtaining account-level documentation supports the conclusion that Midland knew it might need such documentation to “verify” disputed accounts. Second, the record supports an inference that the system Midland uses to verify information is automated and does not incorporate review by Midland employees capable of analyzing disputed accounts and initiating requests for account-level documentation where appropriate. A reasonable jury could find that Midland adopted such a system with reckless disregard for the fact that it would result in perfunctory review in contravention of the FCRA. We therefore hold that a reasonable jury could find that Midland willfully violated § 1681s-2(b) when it reported the GE/Meijer and T-Mobile accounts as “verified” without obtaining sufficient documentation that the debts in fact belonged to Hinkle.