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WA and IN Prison Phone Rates Challenged

On June 20, 2000, a class action suit was filed in King county (Seattle) superior court in Washington. The suit claims that various phone companies that have contracted with the Washington Department of Corrections to provide collect call services for Washington prisoners have violated RCW 80.36.520 and RCW 19.86.090, of the Washington Consumer Protection Act.

The complaint states that people receiving in state long distance calls from Washington prisoners are not informed of the rates they are being charged for the call. People residing in other states who receive long distance collect calls from Washington prisoners were not afforded an opportunity to learn the rates they were being charged prior to November 1, 1999, when the Federal Communications Commission mandated disclosure of the rates. This lack of rate notification violates RCW 80.36.520 which requires that phone companies inform consumers of the rate they are being charged for phone services. Violations of the statute are actionable in state court with damages presumed as the cost of service, plus $200 per violation (i.e., per call). RCW 19.86.090 allows for civil suits that seek triple damages, injunctions and attorney fees for violations of the state Consumer Protection Act.

The class representative plaintiffs are Sandy Judd and Zuraya Wright, a Washington and Florida resident, respectively, who receive long distance collect calls from Washington prisoners. The defendants, who have exclusive contracts with the Washington DOC to provide collect call phone services to prisoners are: American Telephone and Telegraph,GTE Northwest, Centurytel Telephone Utilities, Northwest Telecommunications, U.S. West and T-Netix. In 1998 these companies gave the Washington DOC 45% of their gross billed revenue from prisoner collect calls, totalling approximately $5.2 million. The rates charged to consumers accepting collect calls from Washington prisoners have steadily increased in recent years, as have the kickbacks received by the Washington DOC.

As relief, the plaintiff class seeks an injunction requiring disclosure of the rates charged for collect calls from Washington state prisoners; money damages, including the statutorily presumed damages of cost of service, plus $200 per violation and triple damages of up to $10,000 per class member; an entry of judgment in favor of the class members and an award of attorney fees and costs. The plaintiff class is represented by Chris Youtz, Jon Meier and Marie Gryphon of the Seattle law firm Sirianni and Youtz. See: Judd v. ATT, King County Superior Court No. 00-217565-5SEA.

On June 16, 2000, a class action suit was filed in Marion county superior court in Indianapolis, Indiana, challenging the phone rates charged to consumers accepting collect calls from prisoners in the Indiana DOC and the Marion county jail. The 39 named class representative plaintiffs are consumers in Indiana and other states, and includes attorneys, who have accepted collect calls from Indiana and Marion county jail prisoners and have been charged excessive rates for the calls. The defendants are Marion county sheriff Jack Cottey and Betty Cockrum, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Administration.

The state of Indiana and Marion county have entered into exclusive contracts with ATT to provide exclusive collect call phone services to its prisoners. In exchange for the phone service monopoly, ATT pays the state of Indiana 53% of gross billed revenues, with $9.5 million being paid upfront. Marion county receives 40% of ATT's gross billed revenues for calls from its prisoners.

The plaintiff's suit claims the defendants have violated their common law right to reasonable phone rates. The defendants are accused of the unauthorized taxing of money, unauthorized imposition of a licensing fee, imposing an unreasonable and unjust service charge; unjust enrichment; money had and received; unlawfully restraining and restricting trade; unlawfully increasing the price of phone service and denying the plaintiffs equal term participation in phone services. The plaintiffs claim these actions violate Indianna Code (IC) 1-2-23; 5-7-2-1; 36-1-2-23; 36-1-3-8; 24-1-2-1 and 8-1-2-4.

The plaintiffs are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, money damages and attorney fees and costs. The plaintiff class is represented by Indianapolis attorneys Lawrence Reuben and Stephen Laudig. See: Alexander v. Cottey, Marion County Superior Court No. 49C010006CT001217.

PLN will report developments in both cases. To obtain a copy of the complaints in either of these cases send $5 per complaint to PLN's Seattle office and specify what it is for.

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Related legal cases

Judd v. AT&T

The complaint in Judd is posted in the brief bank.

Alexander v. Cottey