Historic $45 Million Settlement in Washington State Prison Phone Class-action Suit

By Matt Clarke In January 2013, a $45 million settlement was reached in a long-standing lawsuit that challenged the failure of prison phone service companies to provide rate information to people who accepted calls from prisoners in Washington State.

Photo courtesy latinalista.com

Previously, on February 23, 2012, a King County superior court had certified the case as a class-action and approved plaintiffs Sandy Judd (the ex-wife of PLN editor Paul Wright), former Human Rights Defense Center board member and attorney Tara Herivel (who co-edited PLN anthologies Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor and Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Incarceration), and Columbia Legal Services as class representatives for persons who received intrastate collect calls from prisoners at certain Washington state prisons between June 20, 1996 and December 31, 2000.

During that period, rate information mandated by the Washington Utilities & Transportation Commission (WUTC) was not provided by prison phone service companies. The plaintiffs filed suit in state court alleging violations of the Consumer Protection Act, chapter 19.86 RCW.

Similar claims were brought by another plaintiff, Zuraya Wright – Paul Wright’s mother – on behalf of people who accepted interstate (long distance) collect calls from Washington state prisoners during the same time period; however, those claims were dismissed by the court under the filed tariff doctrine.

In 1988, the Washington legislature determined that the provision of telephone services without disclosure of the applicable rates was a deceptive trade practice. Three years later the WUTC promulgated a rule requiring telecommunications companies to make rate disclosures to consumers, under former WAC 480-120-141(5)(a)(iv). The rule was revised in 1999 to make it more specific (former WAC 480-120-141(2)(b)).

AT&T was awarded a contract to provide telephone services in Washington’s prison system in 1992. The company subcontracted with several local exchange carriers (LECs) to supply local and intraLATA services at specific facilities, for calls within the state. T-Netix later took over from one of the LECs that provided phone services at some of the prisons.

The plaintiffs contended that they received collect phone calls from prisoners housed at Washington state prisons between June 20, 1996 and December 31, 2000 without receiving rate quotes or information on how to obtain a rate quote from the phone service providers, in violation of state law. The defendants did not contest that they had failed to provide the rate information, and on March 31, 2011, the WUTC entered a ruling that found they had not disclosed the rates. [See: PLN, Aug. 2011, p.43].

The superior court held that AT&T was responsible for providing the rate information even if had subcontracted phone services to T-Netix or another LEC. The court further held that the case met the requirements for class certification, but only against AT&T. Two classes were certified. The first is composed of persons who – between June 20, 1996 and December 31, 2000 – received interLATA collect calls from the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Twin Rivers Corrections Center, Indian Ridge Corrections Center in Arlington, Special Offender Center in Monroe, Clallam Bay Corrections Center*, Washington Correction Center for Women in Purdy*, Olympic Corrections Center*, Pine Lodge Pre-Release*, Coyote Ridge*, Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, McNeil Island Penitentiary, Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Airway Heights and Tacoma Pre-Release.

The second class includes people who received intraLATA collect calls from the above facilities marked with an asterisk during the same time period. No class was certified for persons receiving local calls because none of the named plaintiffs had received a local call.

The superior court also found that if a violation of the WUTC rules were proven, that would prove both causation and injury so long as the plaintiffs remained within the statutory damages of the costs of the phone service provided plus $200 per violation. Thus, the plaintiffs did not have to prove that they would have refused the calls had they known the rates.

Additionally, the court appointed attorneys Chris R. Youtz and Richard E. Spoonemore of the law firm of Sirianni Youtz Spoonemore as class counsel, and ordered AT&T to assist them in preparing a class notice for the potential class members. In September 2012, the court granted in part and denied in part the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motions arguing that AT&T and T-Netix had violated WUTC regulations related to rate disclosures, and set the case for trial.

On January 21, 2013, the day before a trial on damages in King County superior court, the plaintiffs and AT&T agreed to settle the case for $45 million inclusive of all costs and fees. There are at least an estimated 70,000 class members who are eligible for refunds of the phone charges they paid plus $200 each. During the time period covered by the class-action suit, the intrastate phone rates in Washington prisons were $3.95 plus $.90/minute, or $21.95 for a 20-minute call. Some class members had paid over $10,000 in phone charges.

“A society seeking lower crime rates and fewer people behind bars would want inmates to have access to low-cost telephone calls to loved ones back home. We are not such a society,” the Seattle Times noted in a February 4, 2013 editorial. “Instead, we allow prisons to grant telephone companies lucrative monopolies on collect calls placed by inmates. Prison systems usually get a skim off exorbitant rates, which are essentially a tax on prisoners’ families.”

The is the first time that a lawsuit against a prison phone company has survived dismissal and resulted in a significant settlement. Prison Legal News has covered proceedings in this case since it was filed over 12 years ago, including two appeals. [See: PLN, Dec. 2010, p.16; Mar. 2007, p.38; Dec. 2005, p.19; May 2004, p.41; Sept. 2000, p.10].

Notice of the settlement will be sent to class members within the next several months; additional information about the case is available at www.ratedisclosure.com. Class counsel has stated it will seek $50,000 incentive awards for the named plaintiffs who served as class representatives, and will request attorney fees “up to thirty-five percent of the gross settlement amount under the common fund doctrine.”

Of any leftover settlement funds not disbursed to class members, 25% will go to the Legal Foundation of Washington; the remainder will be distributed to organizations that provide assistance to prisoners, former prisoners or their family members in Washington state, or legal aid or services organizations that provide services to prisoners, former prisoners or their families in Washington state, with the court’s approval.

A counterclaim filed by AT&T against T-Netix, seeking indemnification for T-Netix’s failure to provide the required rate disclosures to consumers, remains pending. Finally, the class-action settlement requires approval by the superior court. See: Judd v. AT&T, King County Superior Court (WA), Case No. 00-2-17565-5 SEA.

Additional source: Seattle Times

(This article first appeared in Prison Legal News and is used here by permission)