published Saturday, April 21st, 2012

Bedford and Blount sue BellSouth for 911 fees

Bedford and Blount counties have joined several 911 districts suing BellSouth/AT&T in federal court for a decade's worth of unpaid fees.

The first federal lawsuit, filed by Hamilton County 911 in November 2011, seeks from $4.5 million to $9 million in fees. Attorneys have requested that damages be tripled to a range between $13.5 million and $27 million.

Lawyers representing the counties filed the Bedford lawsuit Thursday and met with phone company attorneys to schedule court dates in the Blount County case on Friday.

The lawsuits claim BellSouth did not collect the required 911 remittance fee of $1.50 for each residential line and $3 for each business line per month for nearly a decade. Under Tennessee law, telephone companies are supposed to charge customers the fee, then hand the money over to the local 911 district.

The Blount case has a motion hearing scheduled for June 13. Hamilton's case has a trial date of Sept. 16, 2013, while the Bradley lawsuit has a trial set for Oct. 15, 2013.

With the Bedford and Blount filings there now are four Southeast Tennessee counties, including Hamilton and Bradley, that are suing the company for potentially millions of dollars, according to court documents.

Phone company officials have declined comment on pending litigation as have local attorneys Tom Greenholtz, Michael Mahn, Frederick Hitchcock and Yousef Hamadeh, who represent the counties' 911 districts.

In documents filed in the Bradley lawsuit, lawyers for the counties showed 38,107 lines connected in December 2010 for which the company did not charge 911 fees for Bradley, Hamilton and Blount counties.

The counties' attorneys have argued that, by not charging the fee, the company has created an "unfair competitive advantage." Other phone companies initially named in the Hamilton County lawsuit first filed in Circuit Court complied with requests for information and were not named in the federal lawsuit filed in November 2011.

In May 2011, both Davidson and Lincoln counties sued BellSouth, accusing it of similar practices. Davidson County 911 officials settled the suit for $1 million in October, and Lincoln County officials settled for $13,361, according to documents obtained by the Times Free Press.

Shelby County 911 Director Raymond Chiozza said the district settled out of court with the company for an undisclosed amount in December 2011. Madison County 911 director Kim Augustine said the district settled for an undisclosed amount in January, also out of court.

Shelby, Lincoln, Davidson and Madison counties received a settlement amount for the initial claim in the cases, which dealt with how phone companies counted landlines for fee payment. Old analog lines ran one channel per circuit, but newer digital technology allows for a single circuit to hold 23 channels. The original allegation in all of the county lawsuits says the phone company was servicing all 23 lines on the circuit at a business but only charging one 911 fee.

A 2007 Tennessee attorney general's opinion interpreted that 911 districts could levy the 911 fee on each channel in the circuit. Shelby, Lincoln, Davidson and Madison counties settled with the company on that allegation, regarding multiplex circuits, going back to 2007.

In a previous statement, Hitchcock told the Times Free Press that the entire amount of money owed to the counties is hard to determine because attorneys didn't have access to the phone company's records.

These and any future cases that deal with similar allegations could be consolidated into one lawsuit against the company.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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