CenturyLink Tries To Dodge Broadband Billing Lawsuit By Claiming It Technically Has No Subscribers

from the impressive-tap-dancing dept

Broadband ISP CenturyLink has been on the receiving end of an ocean of lawsuits accusing the company of billing fraud after a whistleblower (who says they were fire for bringing it up to management) revealed systemic efforts to routinely overbill users and sign them up for services they never asked for. And while CenturyLink tried to claim an investigation of itself found no wrongdoing (shocking!), State AGs like Minnesota's Lori Swanson say in their complaints (pdf) that they've found plenty of evidence proving that billing fraud was a routine occurance at the broadband provider.

Most of these lawsuits have since been combined into one class action suit. And CenturyLink has since developed a fairly creative attempt to dodge legal liability for its misdeeds: by claiming it doesn't technically have any customers. Technically CenturyLink has 5.66 million broadband subscribers as of last year, but a new brief filed by the company tries to argue it's not culpable because "CenturyLink" is technically just a holding company that manages 10 subsidiaries around the country:

"That sole defendant, CenturyLink, Inc., is a parent holding company that has no customers, provides no services, and engaged in none of the acts or transactions about which Plaintiffs complain," CenturyLink wrote. "There is no valid basis for Defendant to be a party in this Proceeding: Plaintiffs contracted with the Operating Companies to purchase, use, and pay for the services at issue, not with CenturyLink, Inc."

Customers signed up for business relationships with those 10 companies (Qwest Corporation; Embarq Florida, Inc.; Embarq Missouri, Inc.; Carolina Telephone and Telegraph Company LLC; Central Telephone Company; CenturyTel of Idaho, Inc.; CenturyTel of Larsen-Readfield, LLC; CenturyTel of Washington, Inc.; CenturyTel Broadband Services, LLC; and Qwest Broadband Services, Inc.), most of which are just holdover names left over by the company's 2011 acquisition of and earlier fusion with CenturyTel and Embarq. Domains for those companies all resolve to CenturyLink.com.

Because customers signed user agreements with those ten subsidiaries holding them to binding arbitration, CenturyLink lawyers argue that CenturyLink proper can't technically be sued for wrongdoing. You'll recall that thanks to AT&T and a 2011 Supreme Court decision, companies can now strip away your legal rights via fine print, instead forcing you into binding arbitration, where the corporation is victorious more often than not. And while the class action system is arguably broken (unless your criteria involves helping lawyers buy new boats), the arbitration system we've supplanted it with is arguably worse.

Needless to say, the plaintiffs trying to hold CenturyLink accountable for routinely ripping them off aren't impressed by the company's strategy:

"We reject these heavy-handed, anti-consumer tactics and the absurdity of these shell entities that CenturyLink claims to operate under," Meiselas said..."The arbitration clauses they're trying to enforce post-date the litigation," he said.

"The arbitration clauses they're trying to enforce post-date the litigation," he said.

Even with Supreme Court ruling ISP efforts to shovel users into binding arbitration isn't always successful, depending on state law. For example a US District Court judge in California recently ruled that AT&T couldn't force customers into binding arbitration because California law prohibits some aspects of mouseprint arbitration efforts. CenturyLink, meanwhile, is one of several U.S. telcos that have been hemorrhaging customers thanks to their refusal to seriously upgrade their aging copper networks at scale. Between that and the company's billing shenanigans (which include imposing fees for doing absolutely nothing), CenturyLink's effort to have zero customers may just prove successful yet.


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  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 9 Apr 2018 @ 8:25am

    I see it all the time but I'm always shocked on how broken some things are in the US. I mean, nothing should be able to supplant due process and a full, fair trial or at least not some lousy contract/TOS/EULA/whatever.

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

    • icon
      Mason Wheeler (profile), 9 Apr 2018 @ 12:05pm

      Re:

      Yeah, the Supreme Court's ruling makes no sense when the First Amendment explicitly guarantees the right of the people to petition the government for the redress of grievances. Just another example of how corrupt the current Court is...

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2018 @ 3:44pm

        Re: Re:

        You're confusing Freedom of Speech in the First Amendment and petitioning the government with simply bowing to what the individual may consider grievance. They aren't the same. The court system in civil cases is concerned with civil liabilities that are generally described in already written laws. If the law is wrong, it's usually not going to be up to the courts to redress it IF it doesn't conflict with the Constitution. Whether agreeing to arbitration is unconstitutional or simply consumer-hostile can be argued either way. Regardless, it's currently legal in the US, and the way to address that is through the legislative branch where you exercise your... wait for it First Amendment right! Oh... snap... forgot you didn't take civics in high school did you? They must have taken it out of the curriculum by then!

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2018 @ 9:39am

    Comcast will take this one further and claim that they're actually a club, and they don't have "customers" but instead have "members" who pay monthly dues for access to their services.

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2018 @ 10:32am

      Re:

      "We don't have customers, we have monthly investors for whom we provide a service free of charge."

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2018 @ 10:42am

      Re:

      Comcast will take this one further and claim that they're actually a club, and they don't have "customers" but instead have "members"

      Why not a church? No taxes then, and even harder to regulate.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2018 @ 9:57am

    "The arbitration clauses they're trying to enforce post-date the litigation," he said.

    Must be important since he said it twice in a row :p

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

  • identicon
    I.T. Guy, 9 Apr 2018 @ 10:10am

    (who says they were fire for bringing it up to management)

    I just hate it when management sets me on fire.

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

  • identicon
    I.T. Guy, 9 Apr 2018 @ 10:14am

    "We reject these heavy-handed, anti-consumer tactics and the absurdity of these shell entities that CenturyLink claims to operate under," Meiselas said..."The arbitration clauses they're trying to enforce post-date the litigation," he said.

    "The arbitration clauses they're trying to enforce post-date the litigation," he said.

    We heard you the first time.

    (Sorry Karl.)

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

  • icon
    TruthHurts (profile), 9 Apr 2018 @ 10:34am

    Having been a CenturyLink customer in the past...

    I can truthfully state that all bills clearly stated "CenturyLink" on them, and the pay-to on the payments was "CenturyLink".

    The web-site to access our CenturyLink e-mail addresses was "mycenturylink.com" which auto-forwards to "centurylink.net"

    If all documents and web-sites use the single name CenturyLink, seems cut and dried to me.

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

  • icon
    James Burkhardt (profile), 9 Apr 2018 @ 11:12am

    I would wonder if this argument causes more issues than it solves, as noted by Truth Hurts, the billing documentation and payments are to century link. If century link wants to play the legal game that they are legally distinct, the plaintiffs might argue that their issue is with the service provided by century link, not the service under which the arbitration agreement holds, and therefore does not apply to the Century Link service. That then proceeds to question under what authority Century Link provided services, and goes down a hole from there.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Apr 2018 @ 11:35am

    So if they are not Century link customers but Century link sent them bills ... isn't this then a case of massive fraud on Century links part?

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

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 10 Apr 2018 @ 9:00am

      Re:

      It's like the trick the labels pull when it comes to licensing/sales and how it changes based upon who they're dealing with.

      When it benefits them, they have customers, lots of them.

      When it doesn't benefit them, they don't have so much as a single customer.

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

  • icon
    DB (profile), 9 Apr 2018 @ 11:48am

    Nexus of alleged acitvity -> proper party to sue

    Century Link is the nexus of the alleged fraudulent activity. Even if they don't have direct customers, that makes them the proper entity to sue.

    Any arbitration agreement with the local operating company should be irrelevant.

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

  • icon
    Dirkmaster (profile), 9 Apr 2018 @ 1:14pm

    "the arbitration system we've supplanted it with is IN-arguably worse."

    FTFY

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Online Assignment Writer, 9 Apr 2018 @ 10:26pm

    Online Assignment Writer

    I would think about whether this contention causes a bigger number of issues than it explains, as verified by Truth Hurts, the charging document and installments are to century connect. On the off chance that century connect needs to play the legitimate amusement that they are lawfully particular, the offended parties may contend that their issue is with the administration gave by century interface, not the administration under which the intervention understanding holds, and along these lines does not make a difference to the Century Link benefit.

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


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