US Courts Administrative Office Sued Because PACER's Bad Math Is Overcharging Users

from the no-taxation-without-proper-pagination! dept

There's plenty to complain about when discussing the federal court's document filing system known as PACER. Lots.

The interface more closely resembles a low-effort Geocities page from 1998 than something with the weight of the federal government behind it.


Then there's the fact that PACER hands over PDFs like the pages are rolling off the Xerox. To access a digital file, you'll be paying $0.10 a page. Sure, it caps at $3.00 (30 pages) but that's only per individual PDF. Download another from the same case and you're back to square one, paying a dime a page. Opinions are free, which helps, but everything else steadily adds up.

That's not all. You also pay ten cents a "page" to access docket reports and lists of filed documents. Just searching for a case costs you money. Searches start with this bit of techno-wizardry:


If your search turns up nothing, that's $0.10. If it turns up five pages of possible cases, that's $0.50. And so on.

[And let's not forget we're paying for documents we paid judges to write, clerks to file and the Administrative Office of the US Courts to maintain. As for documents filed by attorneys, they're already paid for by clients -- or in cases where public defenders are doing the work, by taxpayers.]

But how does PACER determine what a "page" is when delivering something without a verifiable page count? PACER "explains" it this way:
Billable pages for docket reports, case reports, and search results are calculated using a formula based on the number of bytes extracted (4,320 bytes = 1 billable page).
Seems straightforward, although pretty much unverifiable by the end user. PACER spits out "pages" and puts a total at the bottom, and that's what gets billed to their accounts.

Bryndon Fisher says PACER's math is screwy. He dug into PACER's page calculations and, according to his class action lawsuit, it almost always adds its bytes up incorrectly. (via Courthouse News and Venkat Balasubramani)
Based on an extensive investigation into PACER’s billing practices, PACER exhibits a systemic error that overcharges users for accessing docket reports in violation of its stated policies and procedures.

The basic problem is simple. PACER claims to charge users $0.10 for each page in a docket report, up to a maximum charge of $3.00 per transaction. Since by default, these docket reports are displayed in HTML format, PACER uses a formula based on the number of bytes in a docket to determine the number of billable pages. One billable pages equals 4,320 extracted bytes.

In reality, however, the PACER billing system contains an error. PACER artificially inflates the number of bytes in each extracted page, counting some of those bytes five times instead of just once. As a result, users are systematically overcharged for certain docket reports.
Fisher says this error is resulting in overcharges for everyone using PACER. He tallied up his costs and found PACER's bad math caused a significant cost increase.
During the past two years, Fisher accessed 184 court docket reports using PACER and was charged and paid a total of $109.40 to the AO for this access. These charges do not include access to the individual PDF documents, only access to the docket reports.

Over this two-year period, based on the formula contained in the PACER User Manual, Fisher should have been charged $72.40, representing an overcharge of $37.00 or approximately 51%.
These are not insignificant costs. Fisher's total spend may seem low, but that's just counting access to search results and docket reports. (The real money is in PDFs). News agencies, lawyers and other heavy users are likely racking up significant overcharges if Fisher's calculations are accurate.

Fisher is suing the overseer of the PACER system -- the Administrative Office of the US Courts -- as well as its director (James C. Duff) and the United States itself. It's a class action suit, so other PACER account holders are presumably welcome to get in the action should his complaint be allowed to move forward. (Those who have sustained over $10,000 in overcharges are excluded from the class designation. $10,000 is the minimum amount of damages needed for a sole plaintiff to bring a federal claim.)

Now, the preferable solution to the problem (at least from our end) would be to eliminate PACER fees. That would eliminate calculation errors. That's probably never going to happen, no matter how many lawsuits to that effect are filed. But if Fisher is correct, the US government has collected a bunch of fees it didn't "earn."


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2016 @ 3:02pm

    How much money does PACER make the federal government? I'm curious how big of a "probably never going to happen" eliminating PACER fees is.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2016 @ 4:01pm

      Re:

      According to this NYT article, PACER brought in $150 million net in 2009. Keep in mind, cost per "page" has gone up 25% since then (.08 to .10).

      http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/13/us/13records.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2016 @ 10:20pm

        Re: Re:

        What, really? That's so miniscule as to be nonexistant for government spending. The benefits of making it open without charge would easily outweigh the revenue lost orders of magnitude over.

        Why is there so much reluctance on making access open and free, insofar that something already paid for with taxpayer dollars is "free"?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2016 @ 12:46am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Why is there so much reluctance on making access open and free,

          because it would allow the citizens to find out just how bad a job their governments are doing. More eyeballs looking at things will find many more examples of things being done badly.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TechDescartes (profile), 8 Jan 2016 @ 3:02pm

    TGIF

    Fisher's total spend may seem low, but that's just counting access to search results and docket reports. (The real money is in PDFs).
    The alleged issue cited affects only reports generated in HTML format, such as docket reports, for which PACER apparently is attempting to estimate a page count. The PDF files already are segmented into pages, and the lawsuit makes no allegations about PDF files. So while PACER may get a lot of money from PDF files, they are irrelevant to this lawsuit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2016 @ 3:39pm

    I'm sure they are just using the scrooge mcduck counting method

    1 for you
    2 for me
    2 for you
    3 for me
    3 for you
    4 for me

    at which time you have 3 and I have 9...as I'm counting individual items for you and groups of items for me...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2016 @ 10:10pm

      Re: I'm sure they are just using the scrooge mcduck counting method

      Except that's 6 for me and 9 for you.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        MrTroy (profile), 10 Jan 2016 @ 9:38pm

        Re: Re: I'm sure they are just using the scrooge mcduck counting method

        You missed the joke...

        1 for me... I hand me 1, now I have 1
        1 for you... I hand you 1, now you have 1
        2 for me... I hand me 2, now I have 3
        2 for you... I hand you 1, now you have 2
        3 for me... I hand me 3, now I have 6
        3 for you... I hand you 1, now you have 3
        4 for me... I hand me 4, now I have 10
        ... etc

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2016 @ 3:47pm

    What does the byte count include?

    When they're counting bytes, are they counting displayed text bytes, or are they including the markup?

    I ask, because HTML pages can often be mostly markup.

    If someone on the inside wants to protest, remember that PDFs don't have to exist on virtual Legal-sized paper... you can make the entire PDF one page, with hyperlinks and other markup to track the details.

    And an HTML page can contain only text.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Jan 2016 @ 5:05pm


    Fisher is suing the overseer of the PACER system
    Sorry, I don't buy it. Nobody could possibly be overseeing that POS.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Jan 2016 @ 5:33am

    The second claim

    Note that the action alleges a second claim as well... That the courts have set rates and collected fees (even absent the overcharging "bug") that well exceed their statutory authority.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jeffrey Buckley, 20 Jan 2016 @ 10:01pm

    RECAP The Law

    Use RECAP The Law to avoid some PACER charges: https://www.recapthelaw.org/

    RECAP is a joint project of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University and Free Law Project.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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