Fla. Sub Suit Can Proceed

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A lawsuit emanating from consumer dissatisfaction with service provided by AT&T Broadband in Florida and Georgia can move forward toward class-action status now that a Florida state court has rejected arguments that the disgruntled customers had to submit to arbitration.

Comcast Corp., which purchased the systems originally named in the suit, will now defend the potential class action.

Comcast officials said the company doesn’t comment on specific ongoing litigation, but spokesman Reg Griffin said the MSO strives to provide customers with the highest quality service, along with convenient and expeditious ways to resolve any service issues that may arise.

NOT AIMED AT COMCAST

The plaintiff’s attorney, Woody Wilner, clarified that the suit — and any damages — involve service from and alleged lapses by AT&T Broadband, not Comcast. The complaint in the case addresses wrongs allegedly committed by the operator, known legally as MediaOne of Greater Florida Inc., between 1998 and 2002.

Ground zero for the lawsuit was Jacksonville, Fla., in 2002. A storm of complaints hit the city that year, at times topping 1,200 calls per month.

At the time, the operator was trying to complete a system upgrade required by its franchise agreement. Subscribers had myriad complaints, including a claim that AT&T Broadband was charging users for channels they could not yet receive.

The operator also overcharged for equipment, and demonstrated a pattern of discrimination against low-income minorities in the way it was constructing its upgrade, subscribers added.

Jacksonville officials also joined the critical throng that year, claiming AT&T Broadband falsified performance reports to the city. Local cable executives later conceded that incorrect information was provided, but said that had been an honest error.

Jacksonville threatened revocation proceedings and asked then-Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth to examine AT&T Broadband’s billing procedures.

AT&T Broadband executives then crafted a tentative agreement with the city of Jacksonville that was publicly announced to great fanfare.

Eventually, a settlement was reached between the operator and Jacksonville, leading to the on-time completion of the rebuild and financial contributions to the city and school district, which contributed to purchases ranging from a fire boat, to defibrillators for each of the high schools, said Bill Ferry, director of government affairs for Comcast in Jacksonville.

After the lawsuit was filed in 2002, AT&T Broadband officials filed a petition with the Fourth Circuit Court of Duval County, Fla., to halt it. Consumers have been notified, via bill stuffers, that their complaints are subject to binding arbitration and therefore they have waived the right to sue, the company asserted.

But late last year, Judge L. Haldane Taylor ruled that AT&T’s arbitration policy was “procedurally and substantively unconscionable.” The arbitration terms were presented on a “take-it-or-leave-it basis,” after consumers had invested in installation and other fees, the judge said.

CONSUMERS HAVE RIGHTS

Wilner asserts that the legal challenge could have been made successfully even if the arbitration terms had been agreed to at the time of installation.

“There’s a long history in the law on stuff like that,” he said. “The law still examines whether a demand is clear and appropriate. A consumer can waive their rights, but they don’t deserve to have them stolen.”

Late last month, the Florida First District Court of Appeal upheld Taylor’s ruling, affirming the cable company can’t unilaterally change subscriber agreements. That should open the way for a trial on the allegations in Duval County court.

Wilner said he would argue that a class action is the most efficient way to handle the wrongs alleged by 1 million former AT&T Broadband customers in Florida and 500,000 ex-subscribers in Georgia.

If attorneys are successful in certifying the class, Wilner anticipates the class action will eventually expand nationwide.

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