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Washington Commission Finds AT&T is Prison Collect Call Provider

Washington Commission Finds AT&T is Prison Collect Call Provider

by Mark Wilson

On April 21, 2010, the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission (Commission) handed the dedicated loved ones of PLN’s tenacious Editor an important victory in their long-running challenge of prison collect call rates.

In 2000, Zuraya Wright, Sandy Judd, and Tara Herivel sued AT&T Communications of the Pacific Northwest, Inc. (AT&T); T-Netix, Inc. (T-Netix); Verizon Northwest, Inc. (Verizon); Qwest Corporation (Qwest); and CenturyTel Telephone Utilities, Inc. (CenturyTel), in the Superior Court of Washington for King County.

Plaintiffs alleged that between June 1996 and December 31, 2000, they received collect calls from prisoners confined in four Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities. They also alleged that the named telephone companies were operator service providers (OSPs) that violated Washington’s rate disclosures for the collect calls they received.

The Superior Court dismissed Verizon, Qwest and CenturyTel from the suit, then referred two questions to the Commission under Washington’s “doctrine of primary jurisdiction,” which “requires that issues within an agency’s special expertise be decided by the appropriate agency.” The court sought the Commission’s expertise as to: (1) whether AT&T and T-Netix were OSPs under the contracts at issue; and (2) if so, whether they violated Washington’s rate disclosure regulations. See: Judd v. Am. Tel & Tel Co., 136 Wash App 1022 (2006).

Both AT&T and T-Netix filed answers with the Commission, claiming that they were not OSPs during the relevant period. T-Netix also filed a July 26, 2005 summary judgment motion with the Superior Court, asserting that Plaintiffs had not suffered any injury and, therefore, lacked standing.

On September 6, 2005, the Superior Court granted T-Netix’s motion and revoked its referral to the Commission. See: Judd v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Co., King County Superior Court, No. 00-2-17565-5 SEA. The court later clarified that its ruling also applied to AT&T in Judd, 136 Wash App 1022. On October 28, 2005, the Commission dismissed the complaints against both AT&T and T-Netix.

On December 18, 2006, the Washington Court of Appeals reversed and remanded to the Superior Court and the Supreme Court of Washington denied review on December 4, 2007. See: Judd v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Co., 162 Wash 2d 1022, 175 P3d 1092 (2007). On March 21, 2008, the Superior Court again referred the matter to the Commission for resolution of the previously referred issues.

During the relevant period, administrative rules defined OSP as “any corporation, company, partnership, or person … providing a connection to intrastate or interstate long-distance or to local services from locations of call aggregators.” Another rule mandated that OSPs “disclose to the consumer: (A) a quote of the rates or charges for the call, including any surcharge; (B) the method by which the rates or charges will be collected; and (C) the methods by which complaints about the rates, charges or collection practices will be resolved.”

AT&T entered into a contract with the DOC in 1992 to provide prison telecommunication services and equipment. That contract was amended in 1995 to require AT&T to install certain call control features through its sub-contractor, Tele-Matic Corporation.
Subsequently, T-Netix acquired Tele-Matic Corporation, and “T-Netix was retained to provide a computerized platform … that would feature call control provisions” at the prisons.

“T-Netix treated the name of its platform as highly confidential, yet T-Netix disclosed the name” in a filing. As such, the Commission concluded that “the company had waived its right to designate the information as highly confidential.” Rather, the name – “P-III Premise call platform” – is public information. T-Netix admitted that the “platform had the ability, from June 1996 to December 2000, to provide customers with instructions on how to receive rate quotes and provide consumers with rate quotes.”

The Commission found that “the issue of who owns the platform is at the crux of any determination of which” phone company “acted as the OSP.” Both AT&T and T-Netix denied that it was the OSP, claiming that the other company, instead, was the OSP.

The Commission found “that the P-III platform performed the operator services at the” prisons, and “the owner of the P-III platform … is the OSP.” Additionally, “the contracts themselves point to the owner of the platform as an OSP,” noted the Commission.

“Of particular importance, the contract between AT&T and T-Netix, which was executed on June 4, 1997, provides that AT&T bought the platform from T-Netix, and took title to it. T-Netix solely provided the technical and training services.” Accordingly, the Commission found that AT&T was the OSP from June 4, 1997 on.

The Commission did not address “the second referral question, whether either AT&T or T-Netix violated the Commission’s rate disclosure regulations,” because the parties did not brief the issue or present evidence in support of their positions. As such, “a prehearing conference will be scheduled to determine how best to address this next phase of the referral.” Even so, the Commission’s Order appears to reveal how that issue will be resolved. Specifically, the Commission found that as “evidenced by a letter dated August 25, 2000, AT&T and T-Netix engaged in negotiations to implement rate disclosures for intrastate inmate telephone calls in the State of Washington. This attempt at compliance with the rate disclosure regulations … shows that AT&T knew it was … the OSP and that it had a responsibility to comply with the OSP regulations,” according to Plaintiffs. The Commission appears to have agreed, finding that “the August 2000 letter from AT&T to T-Netix clearly shows that AT&T had certain responsibility for the implementation of rate quotes using the platform for the Washington State correctional facilities.”
We will report on any further developments in the case.

See: Judd v. AT&T, Docket No. UT-042022 (Order 23 dated April 21, 2010 of the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission).

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