AT&T, senators spar over customers’ right to sue

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AT&T is fighting back against criticism that it is unfairly denying customers the right to sue over alleged overcharges.

At issue is so-called forced arbitration, where companies include language in contracts that force customers to settle disputes outside of the courts.

But AT&T says those contracts are fair, and that customers choose to accept those terms to get their services.

“At the outset, no AT&T customer is ever ‘forced’ to agree to arbitration,” AT&T Executive VP Tim McKone wrote in a letter to senators, on Friday.

“Customers accept their contracts with AT&T freely and voluntarily; no one ‘forces’ them to obtain AT&T wireless service, DirecTV programming, or other products and services.”

McKone’s letter came after Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) wrote to the telecom giant in June with a series of questions over reports customers must go to arbitration if they believe they have been overcharged for internet, TV and phone service.

“Forced arbitration provisions in telecommunications contracts erode Americans’ ability to seek justice in the courts by forcing them into a privatized system that is inherently biased in favor of providers and which offers virtually no way to challenge a biased outcome,” the senators wrote.

“Forced arbitration requires consumers to sign away their constitutional right to hold providers accountable in court just to access modern-day essentials like mobile phone, internet, and pay-TV services.”

On Friday, Franken said AT&T’s response “misses the point.”

“There’s nothing ‘friendly’ about AT&T’s take-it-or-leave-it contracts that eliminate consumer choice and take away Americans’ ability to resolve legal disputes with their telecom provider in a court of law,” Franken said in a statement. 

In many areas across the country, consumers have little or no choice in providers they can go to for internet services. Should a consumer want internet access and live in a area only covered by AT&T, they would have to agree to AT&T’s arbitration clause.

AT&T also challenged the validity of a CBS report that prompted the senators’ letter. The report noted over 4,000 instances of consumers filing complaints against AT&T regarding deals, promotion and overcharging over the last two years.  

“The CBS story has it wrong,” AT&T wrote. “Contrary to what is suggested in that story, AT&T is fully committed to honoring its deals, offers, and promotions.”

AT&T said that there have been 412 arbitration cases in the past two years, calling the amount of cases “small,” and concluding that as a result the number does not provide “evidence that the dispute resolution process is not fair or is not used.” 

Franken introduced legislation to stop forced arbitration clauses earlier in the year.

Tags Al Franken Edward Markey Patrick Leahy Richard Blumenthal Ron Wyden

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