For much of 2013 and 2014, a woman in Irving, Texas was bombarded with robocalls from Time Warner Cable about a past-due bill. There was just one problem–Time Warner Cable was calling the wrong number, and she actually didn’t owe a penny. Incredibly, the calls didn’t stop even after the woman told Time Warner Cable that it had the wrong number. Now it’s is paying dearly for its folly. Yesterday, a federal judge ordered Time Warner Cable to pay almost $230,000 in damages after finding that it made 153 illegal robocalls to the woman.
Since Time Warner Cable is based in Manhattan, the case was heard before Manhattan federal district judge Alvin Hellerstein. Starting in July 2013, Araceli King got numerous robocalls on her cell phone from Time Warner Cable saying that a person named Luiz Perez had a past-due bill. On October 3, 2013; after the 10th call, King spent seven minutes on the phone with a Time Warner Cable customer service representative. She let it be known that Time Warner Cable had the wrong number, and demanded that the calls about Perez’ bill stop immediately. It turned out that King’s number had once belonged to Perez. I’m not linking the ruling, since someone in the clerk’s office forgot to redact the number and I’m not willing to risk subjecting King to harassment.
Incredibly, the calls continued even after King demanded they stop. She sued Time Warner Cable for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, a 1991 law that places limits on the use of robocalls without customer consent. Time Warner Cable apparently didn’t get the hint, since at least 74 calls were made after it was served with the lawsuit.
Time Warner Cable tried to wriggle out of the hole it dug itself by claiming that King had consented to receive these calls when she became a customer. To put it mildly, Hellerstein wasn’t impressed. He upheld King’s contention that Time Warner Cable no longer had any consent to call her after October 3–and therefore, the 153 calls she received after that date were illegal.
Hellerstein was particularly angered that Time Warner Cable continued to call her after being served with the lawsuit. I can’t blame him. After all, Time Warner Cable would have had him believe that the second-largest cable company in the nation didn’t take the time to see if there was a glitch in its robocalling system even after being sued to stop robocalls to a wrong number. Hellerstein was being incredibly restrained when he said that this was a sign Time Warner Cable “simply did not take the lawsuit seriously.”
Time Warner Cable also tried to argue that its robocalling system wasn’t an “automatic telephone dialing system” as defined by the TCPA because it relied on a list of numbers belonging to people behind on their bills. Time Warner Cable argued that the list could have easily been generated by a person. There was just one problem–as Hellerstein pointed out, Time Warner Cable never “identified any human involvement” at any stage in its robocalling system. Hellerstein also wrote that while King’s number wasn’t called at random, the system was cable of making random calls–and the law included language to prevent a company from skirting consent requirements by saying it didn’t make random calls.
Under the TCPA, a plaintiff can sue for $500 per violation. However, Hellerstein found that Time Warner Cable’s actions were so egregious that he awarded King treble damages of $1,500 per illegal call, or $229,500. A judge has the option to award treble damages if he finds a company’s actions were “knowing or willful.”
Apparently Time Warner Cable knew it was going to get smacked hard, because it tried to argue that awarding damages would keep companies from reaching out to its customers. Hellerstein replied that any “responsible company” would keep itself out of court in the first place by “taking steps to mitigate damages.” Gee, ya think? Even with attorney’s fees factored in, this will amount to a rounding error in Time Warner Cable’s earnings. But it would still be chump change compared to what it would have taken to fix the system–especially after October 3.
King’s attorney, Sergei Lemberg, hopes this will let customers know they can “stop taking it on the chin” when unwanted robocalls keep coming. Incredibly, Time Warner Cable says it’s still reviewing its options. If these arguments were the best it can do, Time Warner Cable isn’t doing itself any favors.