Jessica Karmasek Feb. 23, 2016, 12:05pm


ATLANTA (Legal Newsline) - Comcast joins the growing list of telephone service providers that are being sued for their alleged failure to pay two Georgia counties thousands of dollars in 911 fees.

In December, two of the largest counties in the state -- Cobb and Gwinnett counties -- filed a string of lawsuits in federal court against various telephone service providers, seeking to recover millions in 911 charges that they allege have gone unpaid.

Cobb County filed eight separate lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division, Dec. 16. Gwinnett County joined in filing seven of the suits, also claiming unpaid charges.

The counties also filed lawsuits against various telephone service providers in Gwinnett County Superior Court and Fulton County Superior Court.

The lawsuits seek to recover more than $50 million for three years of alleged unpaid fees.

Last month, the counties filed another lawsuit -- this time in Cobb County Superior Court against Comcast, the nation’s third largest home telephone service provider.

But Comcast is fighting back, filing a removal notice in the Northern District of Georgia last week.

The company wants the Jan. 20 complaint against it moved from state court. Comcast argues that the lawsuit belongs in the same federal court in which the counties have filed similar suits because the action is between citizens of different states and the matter in controversy exceeds $75,000, exclusive of interests and costs.

Comcast’s headquarters are in Pennsylvania, and, according to the counties’ complaint, the amount in 911 fees allegedly owed exceeds $2,862,000.

According to its Feb. 17 removal notice, the company disputes the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims.

Comcast is being represented by Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP in Atlanta.

Under Georgia law, funding for Emergency 911 Systems comes from assessing a charge on exchange access lines and lines that allow for voice over Internet protocol, or VoIP, telephone service.

In their lawsuits, the counties argue that state law -- the “E911 Statute” -- requires telephone service suppliers, such as the defendants, to bill, collect, report and remit 911 charges for every telephone subscriber, excluding those persons or entities otherwise exempt from taxation.

In particular, suppliers are required to bill, collect, report and remit to the local governments operating Emergency 911 systems 911 charges of up to $1.50 per month for every exchange access line, channel or pathway.

Under state law, such receipts, less a 3-percent administrative fee, are to be remitted to the local governing authority each quarter.

The counties contend the suppliers’ under-billing, under-collecting and underpayment was “purposeful.”

The counties have hired the Barnes Law Group in Marietta and Harris Penn Lowry LLP in Atlanta to represent them in the lawsuits.

According to a copy of the firms’ engagement letter with the counties -- as provided by the Cobb County Attorney’s Office through an open records request -- the firms are entitled to a 35 percent contingency fee.

“If no Fee Deficiency Proceeds are recovered, the County shall not be indebted to the Firms for any attorneys’ fees whatsoever,” the letter states.

One defendant, Level 3 Telecom Holdings LLC, has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit against it, arguing that the counties’ decision to hire outside counsel violates Georgia public policy.

The counties have refused to comment on the lawsuits, saying they do not comment on “pending legal cases.”

“These suits are necessary because the telephone service providers have a statutory and fiduciary responsibility under Georgia law to properly bill, collect and remit 911 fees,” Roy E. Barnes, counsel for the counties, said in a previous statement.

“We believe, based on the evidence we have received, that responsibility has not been met. These monies need to be paid for the benefit of the counties’ 911 systems.”

The counties are seeking: a record of the defendants’ accounts; judgment entered against the defendants, including damages; a declaration that the suppliers are obligated to bill, collect and turn over the 911 charges under state law; an order enjoining the suppliers from failing to fully and truthfully bill, collect and remit the 911 charges; and costs, including attorneys’ fees.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

Organizations in this Story

Comcast Corporation
J F K Dr
Philadelphia, PA 16738

Barnes Law Group
31 Atlanta Street Southeast
Marietta, GA 30060

Harris Penn Lowry LLP
1201 Peachtree Street Northeast
Atlanta, GA 30361

Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP
1001 Fannin St
Houston, TX 77002

Cobb County
100 Cherokee Street Marietta, GA 30090
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