Nineteen local governments in Georgia filed lawsuits against telephone service providers alleging they failed to properly bill, collect, report and remit 9-1-1 charges that help fund 9-1-1 emergency service operations. The suits were brought under a Georgia law that permits local governments to audit the books and records of service suppliers related to the collection and remittance of 9-1-1 charges.Verizon Acquires Drone Software Company
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The cases follow similar suits filed by Cobb and Gwinnett counties in December 2015. In 2016, Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Randolph G. Rich denied BellSouth's and Earthlink's requests to dismiss the Cobb and Gwinnett lawsuits, a decision they have appealed. Thirteen other suits brought by Cobb and Gwinnett in state and federal courts are on hold pending the outcome of the appeal. The Georgia Court of Appeals has scheduled arguments for the cases in January.
The latest suits allege as many as 55 telephone service providers in Georgia have been making inaccurate reports on the types and number of phone lines for which 9-1-1 fees are charged and paid, and that the shortfall causes significantly less funding for local governments to deliver critical 9-1-1 emergency services.
“In total, 37 suits have now been filed to recover more than $100 million for 21 different local governments in Georgia that have asked for assistance, and more local governments are considering whether to bring similar suits,” said former Georgia Gov. Roy E. Barnes, one of the lawyers representing Cobb and Gwinnett counties.
The suits allege that several telephone service providers in Georgia, including AT&T, Bandwidth and Windstream to name a few, “have failed to bill, collect, report and remit 9-1-1 charges in accordance with the law.” The alleged underbilling practices are mostly geared to Georgia businesses to gain a competitive advantage over other telephone companies that follow the law. The suits allege that local governments in Georgia have been forced to use their operating and capital funds to close the shortfalls to keep the 9-1-1 centers operating.
“These suits are necessary because the telephone service providers have a fiduciary responsibility to properly collect and remit 9-1-1 charges on behalf of the local governments,” said Dave Worley of Atlanta's Evangelista Worley. “Based on the evidence we've reviewed, we believe that responsibility has not been met, and our investigation over the last several years suggests the underbilling practice is as widespread in metro-Atlanta as it is in the rural parts of the state.”
The 19 local governments hired The Barnes Law Group, Evangelista Worley and Harris Penn Lowry to represent them, and have contracted with Expert Discovery, a telecommunications firm specializing in forensic analysis of 9-1-1 remittances.
According to Roger Schneider, founder and president of Expert Discovery, confidentiality provisions and the lack of technical knowledge and telecommunications expertise allow telephone service providers to keep these under-billing practices from being detected. The real driver is that they're under tremendous competitive pressure since the breakup of the Bell system to retain customers or win new ones that are increasingly shopping almost exclusively on price, he said. “What is most unfair is a residential customer often ends up paying more than business customers,” Schneider said. “For example, a residential customer with one house line, one home business line and three cellphones in the family pays the full freight of 9-1-1 charges, but a large business with 300 lines, each capable of initiating a call to 9-1-1, is being charged a fraction of 9-1-1 charges for all those lines. To be clear, it’s not the fault of any business as they are just paying the bill they receive. These billing practices, however, are completely illogical, unfair and indefensible. The telephone service providers know it, yet they continue to do it the same way. We intend to shed light on these practices so that courts can decide whether telephone service providers are meeting their obligations under the law.”
The lawsuits were filed Jan. 4 in six different courts throughout Georgia. The defendant telecommunications companies have 30 days to respond.
The counties pursuing recoveries includes Clay, Cobb, Crisp, DeKalb, Dooly, Gwinnett, Fulton, Macon-Bibb, Marion, Muscogee, Quitman, Randolph, Talbot, Taylor, Schley, Stewart, Sumter and Webster.
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