Comcast late fee class action update: ruling striking defenses

This is an update report for those following our Comcast late fee class action.  In this certified class action, Oregon Comcast cable television subscribers claim that Comcast illegally assessed late fees for cable TV service. The class seeks damages. Here is the last update on the case. Go to my old blog, here, if you want a copy of the class certification decision.

So Friday, Tim Quenelle and I returned to court to argue discovery and pleading motions. We did something a bit unusual and filed motions to strike various affirmative defenses raised by Comcast.

Judge Baldwin ruled today. He granted the class’s motions to strike the following eight defenses:  Reduction of damages based on losses Comcast claims to have suffered (Sixth Affirmative Defense); Subscribers’ breach of their cable TV subscription agreements (Ninth Affirmative Defense); Failure to timely assert rights under the late fee statute (Tenth Affirmative Defense); Estoppel (Eleventh Affirmative Defense); Laches (Twelfth Affirmative Defense); Ratification (Thirteenth Affirmative Defense); Reservation of Rights; and Comcast’s prayer for attorney fees.

Judge Baldwin denied the class’s motions as to four affirmative defenses: standing of the class representatives, voluntary payment, unclean hands, and set-off for class members’ unpaid balances.

Judge Baldwin’s rulings limit Comcast’s defenses and narrow the scope of the case. It’s another step forward for the class. While there is still far to go, we’re counting it as a great day.

Western Culinary Institute class action featured in New York Times story

Peter Goodman of The New York Times does a nice job here of looking at the problem of for-profit trade schools. The story mentions our class action against Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland.  And while it’s all exciting to see the case written up in the Times, that’s hardly the point.

The Goodman article points out the disparity between the costs of trade school education and expected earnings.  I was taken by a Sr. Vice President, Brian Williams, comment, “You go in the industry and work your way up.”

I don’t have any idea how much Mr. Williams knows about labor statistics. But the cold reality is that there are very few high-paying jobs in the culinary field–at least as compared to the scads of low-wage kitchen jobs that require no training. In short, there isn’t much “up” to reach.

Some suggest that this is not different from an expensive law or medical degree or a BA in liberal arts from a four-year school. I suppose it’s tempting to take that view, but in reality the differences are profound.

Let’s look at them.

Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu say in their catalogs that they provide entry level training. In the lawsuit, we take issue with what they don’t tell students.  A culinary degree doesn’t provide a student much in the way of qualifications for an entry level kitchen job. By comparison, you simply can’t practice law or medicine without degrees and licenses.

In marketing the program, the school tells its prospective students about high placement rates–above 90 percent. But they don’t talk about the pay.  The school collects initial placement and earnings for its graduates. As the New York Times article explains, the vast majority of students earn very low wages upon graduation. Those low earnings won’t allow most students to repay their loans.

Defenders of for-profit trade schools also cite the profoundly expensive four-year bachelors degree problem. They are right about the high cost of four year schools, but wrong to compare the two. Ivy league schools cost far in excess of most middle income families’ abilities to pay, leading many students to incur heavy debt loads.

But several things are different.  The liberal arts program doesn’t sell itself as “vocational training.” Nor does it tout its placement statistics or skill-based career training as the reason to attend. And the universities aren’t run by billion dollar corporations who are concerned about their Wall Street performance.

Our case has taken two years so far. If we succeed, students who suffered losses will recover money that will help pay down their debts.

We need better oversight of these schools, these loans and these lending practices, as students who enroll at for-profit trade schools often are underwater from the day they graduate.  Effective oversight of trade school programs and educational loans would prevent these types of abuses.

Senator Wyden supports expanded benefits for Iraq war vets exposed to sodium dichromate

In Portland last week, Senator Wyden held a press conference to announce his support for expanding VA benefits for soldiers exposed to toxic chemicals in Iraq.  This arguably sounds bland.  It is not.

Senator Wyden and Oregon National Guard Vets

It’s important for a few reasons. Let’s talk first about history. Senator Wyden and I are a few years apart, but I believe that we both share the haunting memories of our Vietnam era vets exposed to Agent Orange. That was the impetus for me in joining this fight. I imagine it plays on Senator Wyden, as well. We owe our soldiers many debts. It is good that Senator Wyden sees the world this way and has committed to the fight.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always agree with Senator Wyden. But that is little more than a footnote. I share his sense of mission and want to thank him for his commitment to these issues.

And that brings me to the other reasons why this is important. Senator Wyden’s commitment to these issues provides profound comfort to our injured vets. At one point during the press conference, Senator Wyden opened the mic to any of the sick vets who wanted to comment. A soldier, Sgt. (retired) Matt Hadley, moved toward the mic. He hesitated briefly–Matt is a soldier and not the kind of guy you would find hugging a mic at a press conference. He developed asthma and was forced to retire from the Oregon National Guard.

So as Matt moved to the podium, I wondered what he would say and do. He paused and then called out Senator Wyden by name. He delivered the most heartfelt thanks that anyone could imagine. I would have remembered it and reported it word-for-word, except that I was busy losing the struggle to remain dry-eyed. Sgt. Hadley gave voice to many in that brief moment, and what I heard was that our vets were thankful that they don’t fight alone.

The last reason why all of this is important is that Senator Wyden is taking up the mantle of leadership on these issues. Senator Wyden has been supportive of the vets throughout, but he has deferred to his colleagues, Senators Dorgan and Bayh.  Both are leaving the senate. So Senator Wyden’s leadership on this issue will be important.

All of this takes place as we move forward in the legal fight against KBR. Our soldiers protected KBR at the tainted Qarmat Ali site. And now they face a lifetime of health problems. As we look at these problems going forward, I’m struck by the contrast. Our soldiers did their jobs at Qarmat Ali. They didn’t complain about putting themselves on the line to protect KBR assets and personnel. And now that they are sick, I can’t help but grow angry at KBR’s refusal to cover our soldiers’ backs.

I guess that’s why God invented juries and why I have a job.

Update: Western Culinary Inst. Career Education Corp. class action moves forward

Recently, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Richard Baldwin signed this order (pdf) certifying an Oregon consumer fraud class action against Western Culinary Institute and Career Education Corp. It took us a while to get to an order. That’s not unusual in class action cases.

There is a quiet feature to his ruling that has an important impact on the case. Judge Baldwin refused Western Culinary Institute and Career Education Corp’s request to allow an immediate appeal of his decision.

That’s important for class members because each appeal can add years to the life of a case.  Judge Baldwin also ordered the parties to present a proposed notice plan, so the next step on the case should be notice to the class.

It’s good news for Western Culinary Institute alums who are drowning in debt.  For our part, it’s a great day. Brian Campf and I continue to push forward. It’s been a long road. There is still far to go. Onward.

If you attended WCI (now known as Le Cordon Bleu Portland) on or after March 2006, and you haven’t been in touch, feel free to use the contact information to connect. We can answer questions about the status of the case and also get you into our tracking system.

David Sugerman

Comcast late fee class action update–reflections of a consumer class action lawyer

For those interested, here is an update on the Oregon late fee class action against Comcast. The short version is that with my co-counsel, Tim Quenelle, I filed a class action against Comcast for its illegal assessment of cable TV late fees in Oregon.

We filed this case in July 2004. No, that’s not a typo. The case will turn six this summer. More background on the history of the case  here and here.

While Comcast disputes this, the class claims that Comcast illegally billed cable TV late fees in Oregon for years. Comcast claims that it’s done nothing wrong, or if it did, these were simply technical violations. Comcast has many other defenses. That’s their choice, of course.

So the latest–the update–is that Comcast is asking the court to allow it another appeal. This time Comcast wants to appeal the court’s decision to allow the class to seek statutory damages of $200 per person.  Comcast already lost an earlier appeal on whether it could require mandatory arbitration of these claims.

While no one has said this directly to me, it’s pretty apparent that the defense is really to drag this out as long as possible. In that respect, the litigation strategy is ironically the opposite of the speedy internet service that Comcast advertises.  But of course, Comcast makes those choices. I suppose it makes sense if the alternative is facing the prospect of payment of millions to Oregon subscribers.

To hear some self-appointed experts talk, consumer class actions are nothing more than stick-’em-up get-rich opportunities. The damages at issue in this case are calculated in the millions. Comcast billed late fees in six dollar increments. While few consumers lost large sums of money, when you total the numbers you come to realize that billing six bucks a pop from many people is a great way to make money.

Meantime, of course, the lawyers pushing the case soldier on. We get paid if and when we bring the case to a successful conclusion, based on a fee that the court must approve as reasonable and fair. And in the six years we’ve been pushing the case, we’ve invested time and money to move it forward.

If you doubt the wisdom of that, let’s consider the alternatives. We deregulated our economy beginning in the 1980s.  So regulation isn’t an option. Even so, I imagine we can all agree that allowing businesses to illegally collect money is unacceptable.  So what’s left, other than the courthouse, when corporations rip off consumers?

For Comcast Oregon cable TV subscribers who paid late fees, all I can say is that we’ll see this through to the end. That may be another 10 years, but so be it.  My son and I were talking the other day, and he related that he’s been accused of being stubborn. “You come by it honestly,” I replied. The reality of our world is that obstinate consumer class action lawyers are one of consumers’ best weapons against corporate greed running amok.

Honda Civic class action coupon settlement smells of abuse

Here is a report of what looks to be an abusive coupon settlement in a class action in California. It prompts me to do some explaining, as I’m a consumer class action lawyer.

As the linked report explains, the case involves a California false advertising class action in which two consumers filed a class action against Honda for overstating the mileage on its Civic Hybrid. I’m going to assume that Herb Weisbaum, the MSNBC Consumerman columnist, got the story right. He usually does a good job on consumer issues. I don’t know anything about the case or have access to the court file. I’m relying on his report for this analysis.

The story goes that Honda and the class reached a settlement that provided for coupons and an informational DVD for the class, incentive payments for the class representatives, and a seven-figure attorney fee award for class counsel.

The coupons are the problem. According to the linked report, the coupons are worth $500-$1,000 but only redeemable on the purchase of a qualifying model of a Honda or Acura. That stinks. And it stinks in both directions. If Honda did wrong, then it should provide real relief to the class and shouldn’t be rewarded with a marketing campaign for consumer ripoffs. If, on the other hand, Honda did not violate California law then it shouldn’t be paying millions to attorneys who pursue class actions.

And as for the lawyers for the class it stinks because coupon settlements are acceptable under a rare set of circumstances. Here are some things that should be in place to make for a fair coupon settlement. They make sense when the coupons are for widely-purchased consumer goods, like gasoline or toothpaste. To be a fair settlement, coupons should almost always be transferable and/or redeemable for cash. Consumers who receive coupons to settle a class action should be able to get real benefit from them. The reported Honda coupon settlement fails on all fronts.

It’s possible that I’m missing something, and if so, as is my general practice, I will update this post. But save me the defamation threat letters that don’t include a thorough and documented explanation of how I’m missing the mark.

I imagine that much criticism will be heaped on the class lawyers for this settlement. Let’s be clear. Based upon the reported facts in the MSNBC column, that criticism is well-deserved. It looks like Honda chose to pay millions to class counsel to snuff out a liability and promote future sales of various products. Settlements take two sides. Honda deserves some of the darts on this deal as well.

The other piece is that it seems to me that class members may want to strongly consider objecting to this settlement. Class action settlements must be reviewed and approved by the court, so if you’re a class member and you get a notice, you might want to consider whether to object. A rejection of this settlement might send a message to both sides that consumers deserve better.

David Sugerman

Update on Western Culinary Institute/Career Education Corp. class action

This is an update on the Oregon consumer fraud class action against Western Culinary Institute and Career Education Corp. that I am handling with co-counsel, Brian Campf.  Lots of background here and here.  I know many people have questions about where we are on this.

We’re in the process of getting an order signed that’s the next step forward. It’s a bit of a slow process. My hope is that we’ll have the formal order entered in the next week or two and will start the process of providing notice to the class.

If you attended Western Culinary Institute/Le Cordon Bleu Portland after March 2006, you may be eligible to particpate in the case. If you haven’t contacted us, it would be helpful to hear from you. Feel free to use the contact button to find us.

I’ll continue to post updates on this site.

David Sugerman

Iraq-era veterans losing a champion in the Senate

Senator Byron Dorgan (D.  N.D.) announced yesterday that he will not seek re-election.  I’ve never been to North Dakota, and I had only passing awareness of Senator Dorgan until this summer.  That changed as a result of my work on behalf of Oregon National Guard soldiers exposed to sodium dichromate in Iraq.

Senator Dorgan has chaired the Democratic Policy Committee. In that role, he has held hearings on Army and Army National Guard soldiers’  exposures to sodium dichromate at the Qarmat Ali facility.  Those hearings have been instrumental in exposing wrongdoing by KBR and others.

Senator Dorgan has proved himself a friend of our soldiers and their families.  This is not simple bumper sticker “support our troops,” stuff.  In comments made at the hearing in August 2009, Senator Dorgan made it clear that he is motivated by the simple proposition that we owe our vets more than pats on the back.

So I read this news with a heavy heart.  Those of us who dare to challenge KBR for their misconduct have taken on a big and powerful foe. As every guy knows, when you’re in a barroom brawl, there’s nothing more welcome than a friend by your side.  Thanks Senator Dorgan for your great work. We’ll miss you as we push forward.