11/01/2013 11:47 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Bell 'Reprehensible' For Violating Privacy Rights: Judge

HALIFAX - The Federal Court of Canada has awarded a Nova Scotia man $21,000 in damages after a judge ruled cable giant Bell TV acted in a "reprehensible" fashion when it checked the man's credit history without permission, violating his privacy rights.

Judge Michael Phelan said not only did Bell violate Rabi Chitrakar's rights, the company also demonstrated no interest in offering compensation and later failed to take the court proceedings seriously.

"Bell is a large company for whom a small damages award would have little material impact," says the judgment released this week. "Chitrakar spent a considerable period dealing with the Bell bureaucracy and in pursuing his claim. These factors suggest that a damages award should not be minimalistic."

Bell spokesman Albert Lee issued a statement suggesting Bell's policy "was unclear to the customer," but Lee's email didn't say what policy he was referring to. Lee also said the company apologized and waived all fees when it learned about what happened.

Lee declined a request for an interview, saying he was not the "subject matter expert."

"There was absolutely no confusion at my part." Chitrakar said in an email.

"I've worked in banking sector for almost a decade and I know when we can order credit checks on customer. Bell in no way .... sought my permission for credit check nor advised me that I could have opted out from credit check by making a $200 deposit."

Chitrakar said he was satisfied with judgment.

"But I had hoped that it could go little further so companies like Bell take privacy intrusion of people little more seriously."

The court decision says that when Chitrakar ordered satellite TV service on Dec. 1, 2010, Bell immediately conducted an unauthorized credit check on the first-time customer.

When the TV service was installed at his home in Beechville, N.S., almost a month later, Bell obtained an electronic copy of his signature and transferred it to a rental agreement that authorized the credit check after the fact, the judgment says.

At the time, Chitrakar thought he was simply confirming delivery of the satellite system. He was never given a copy of the agreement, the ruling says.

"Leaving aside concerns with the validity of Bell transferring Chitrakar's signature ... to the rental agreement, the credit check was conducted one month before Mr. Chitrakar signed anything," Phelan wrote.

Chitrakar called Bell to complain about what happened after he spotted the credit check, a so-called "hard-pull" inquiry that hurt his credit score, the court said.

Bell responded by giving Chitrakar a "royal runaround," the judgment says.

Chitrakar later filed a complaint with the federal privacy commissioner, who found that Bell had violated its own policies.

As well, the commissioner was told Bell couldn't find any records relevant to Chitrakar's case and it couldn't confirm the identity of the clerk who handled the file.

"Bell's conduct in this matter is reprehensible in respect to Chitrakar’s privacy rights," Phelan wrote.

"Not only did Bell violate those rights, it has shown no interest in compensation or apparently any interest in addressing the (clerk's) actions nor in following the privacy commissioner's remedial recommendations."

Chitrakar told the court he was subsequently denied a student loan, though there was no direct evidence to show Bell’s actions played a role.

"Privacy rights are being more broadly recognized as important rights in an era where information on an individual is so readily available even without consent," the judgment says. "It is important that violations of those rights be recognized as properly compensable."

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