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Federal appeals court examines disputed telephone charges

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Writing for a unanimous 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel, U.S. Judge David Hamilton authored an opinion Tuesday full of what he calls “telephonese.” The opinion delves into a small business’s disputed phone bill charges and how those matters are governed by state and common law.

The ruling comes in Lady Di’s Inc. v. Enhanced Services Billing Inc. and ILD Telecommunications Inc., No. 10-3903, a case from U.S. Judge Sarah Evans Barker in the Southern District of Indiana involving an Indianapolis beauty and hair salon.

Using AT&T as its telephone company, Lady Di’s disputes charges that were on its telephone bill in 2008 from ESBI in Delaware and ILD in Delaware – both described as “billing aggregators” that are not directly involved with the sale of telecommunications and services to customers but act as intermediaries between telephone companies such as AT&T and service providers offering e-fax services or Internet resources.

After customers pay their telephone bills, ESBI and ILD collect payments for service provider charges recovered by local telephone companies, deduct part of the payment as a fee, and forward the rest to service providers.

In this case, Lady Di’s owners dispute several months of charges in 2008 that they claim were unauthorized for an e-fax service and an Internet search engine and directory option. Lady Di’s made its October payment that year that included the $49.95 and $42.75 charges before discovering the charges, and then contacted AT&T for a refund. AT&T told the business to contact both ESBI and ILD, and the billing aggregators named as defendants here either refused a refund or didn’t respond.

After this suit was filed in state court and later removed to federal court, Lady Di’s account was credited in full for the disputed charges – but the case proceeded on claims that the allegedly unauthorized charges violated Indiana’s anti-cramming statute as well as the Deceptive Consumers Practices Act, and that the amounts were unjust enrichment under common law.

Judge Barker denied a class-certification request and later in separate rulings granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the claims of unjust enrichment and statutory deception. Lady Di’s appealed both rulings, and the 7th Circuit panel affirmed the judgment, but the court followed a different path to reach that same conclusion.

“Turning first to the merits, we conclude that the Indiana anti-cramming regulation does not apply to these defendants because they are not telephone companies and did not act in this case as billing agents for telephone companies,” Judge Hamilton wrote.

Although the anti-cramming regulation detailed in both Indiana Code 8-1-29-5(2) and 170 IAC 7-1.1-19 doesn’t provide a private cause of action, Judge Hamilton wrote that it does provide a way to defend against collection actions. The judges also determined that a recorded phone conversation shows that Lady Di’s actually did order the disputed services and that defeats the unjust enrichment and deceptive commercial solicitation claims.

Precedent from state courts during the past century proves that Indiana courts likely wouldn’t agree with the plaintiffs on the unjust enrichment claims, Judge Hamilton wrote.

“We do not believe Indiana courts would use the equitable doctrine of unjust enrichment to convert a technical violation of a regulation into a right of action that would provide a (tiny) windfall for an individual customer who actually ordered, received the benefit of, and paid for the services in question,” he wrote.

“If Indiana wants to create a private right of action for a violation of the anti-cramming law, it can do so by statute or perhaps by regulation. It has not done so yet. If a customer is a victim of genuine cramming – charged for unwanted services that were not ordered – the equitable doctrine of unjust enrichment might well be applicable. But the doctrine … cannot be used in this way by a customer like plaintiff, who actually ordered and received the services.”
 

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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