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AT&T balks at settlement terms

The company files a surprise appeal of language intended to curtail marketing to people billed for bogus charges.

By LOUIS HAU
Published May 27, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - The battle between AT&T and state Attorney General Charlie Crist over erroneous long-distance charges took an unexpected twist Wednesday when the company appealed a settlement to which it had reportedly agreed.

In a motion filed Wednesday in Leon County Circuit Court, AT&T said it is seeking an immediate stay of a portion of the settlement that requires the long-distance carrier to stop all efforts to market phone services to any Florida resident calling in about "a billing issue."

That phrase, the company argued, is too broad and would hamstring legitimate efforts to inform consumers about various AT&T calling plans.

"Without this stay ... AT&T will be irreparably harmed as the effect of this (settlement) is to restrain AT&T's lawful 1st Amendment commercial speech," the company's motion said.

AT&T said it is willing only to stop directing sales pitches to customers who call about erroneous monthly recurring charges that appear on their phone bills, the original issue that had prompted Crist to sue the company April 30.

Crist's office has received hundreds of complaints from consumers who said they have been wrongly billed by AT&T. Many of them also complained that AT&T customer service representatives subjected them to a barrage of sales pitches when they tried to correct their bills.

Crist, who is still seeking damages from the company, said he was surprised and angered by AT&T's appeal.

"Why did they agree to it, then?" he said. "I continue to be amazed at the gall of this company ... I'm amazed, but less so every day."

AT&T spokeswoman Betsy Palmer said the company had agreed verbally May 19 to stop marketing efforts aimed at consumers wrongly assessed the monthly recurring charge.

But Palmer said the company was dismayed the next day to discover that the written version of the settlement had included the broader language. Despite the company's concerns, the written version was issued as a court order by Leon Circuit Judge Nikki Clark.

AT&T said in its motion that the company attorney who agreed to the marketing restriction "did not have the actual authority" to do so and that he had thought that the marketing restriction would only pertain to the monthly recurring charge and other related charges.

AT&T said it is not challenging other aspects of the settlement. That includes the stipulation that the company issue refunds to all Florida consumers who were erroneously assessed a monthly recurring charge and other fees. AT&T has acknowledged that it has wrongly billed about 1-million customers nationwide since January, most of whom weren't AT&T customers.

AT&T has asked the Leon County court for a hearing this afternoon on its appeal.

- Louis Hau can be reached at 813 226-3404 or hau@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 27, 2004, 01:00:38]

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