Californian Latest To File Potential Class-Action Set-Top Suit

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A Stockton, Calif., woman is the latest to file a potential class action to challenge the cable operator practice of demanding consumers rent cable descramblers rather than allowing subscribers to buy them outright in order to view premium services such as HBO.

The suit was filed in late November in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, Sacramento Division. The action, on behalf of Comcast Corp. customer Cheryl Corralejo, alleges that the set-top rental practice represents an "unlawful tying arrangement resulting in an impermissible restraint of trade." In addition to violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the suit alleges the practice violates business and professions codes. The suit has been filed on behalf of all California Comcast customers who buy premium services.

If the verbiage of the suit sounds familiar, it's because the claim is nearly identical to one filed on behalf of Missouri consumer Matthew Meeds in August. That pending potential class action suit targets Time Warner Cable, however. In fact, one of the attorneys in the California case also filed the Meeds case.

The suits note that premium video and the set-top descramblers are two distinct products, yet the cable providers require that the hardware be rented from cable companies, rather than permitting consumers to purchase the set-top hardware in the open market.

Owing to such tying arrangements, "In a matter of months, the rental fees that the class is supposed to pay for the cable boxes ... greatly exceeds their worth," according to the California suit. The charges add up quickly if a consumer has multiple sets in the home hooked up to premium services, the suit notes.

The lawsuit also duns Comcast for touting the rental of cable boxes over the use of the CableCARD, the latter of which is to take the place of set-top hardware. Even if a consumer decides to get a CableCARD to plug into a digital set, that hardware must be rented from Comcast, too, according to the suit.

The plaintiff is asking for compensatory and other damages, attorney fees, court costs and interest, according to the filings.

Comcast attorneys asked for more time to answer the allegations, a request that was granted on Dec. 17. The company has until Jan. 30 to file its response to the claims.