A proposed class action alleges Altice USA, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, violated its “Pledge to Keep Americans Connected” by terminating phone and internet services for non-essential small businesses nationwide over their apparent “non-payment” of monthly fees.
The 29-page lawsuit was filed in New York by a Bronx barbershop operator who alleges Altice USA, after ostensibly joining up with the Federal Communication Commission’s pledge to keep the country connected in the early days of the pandemic, not only shut off service and tried to recoup payments missed from March 15 to at least mid-June 2020 but “coerced” small businesses into entering into new service agreements.
According to the case, these new agreements imposed upon small businesses “an exorbitant one-time ‘start-up’ fee” to restart their telephone and internet services. The suit scathes that Altice USA’s conduct left non-essential small business owners with no choice but to enter into a new contract with the company or else lose their phone number, which some had used for decades, to another business or third party.
“This case arises from a shocking betrayal of trust of the American public by Defendant Altice, who exploited the COVID-19 pandemic for profits, causing severe and lasting damages to non-essential small businesses in New York and throughout the United States,” the suit begins.
The plaintiff, fearful of losing his barbershop’s long-time phone number and the devastating effect it might have on the business, claims to have felt “compelled to accede to Altice’s extortionate demands,” and paid the company a one-time charge of $180 to create a new service account, the complaint says. The plaintiff was forced to shut down by March 22, 2020 given barbershops and hair salons were not classified at the time as “essential businesses” in New York state, the case relays.
Moreover, Altice, one of the largest cable TV and internet providers in the country, also forced small business owners to pay in addition to the one-time start-up fee any “outstanding balances” they may have owed for the three months in which their businesses were shut down at the onset of the pandemic, the lawsuit alleges.
Although Altice USA was aware that proposed class members were barred as a matter of law from operating in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning they could not open their businesses for any reason, much less use their phone or internet services, the company “unethically, and in flagrant violation of its Pledge to Keep America [sic] Connected, terminated services for thousands of small non-essential businesses,” the lawsuit alleges. Altice then, according to the suit, “refused to turn services back on unless, and until, Plaintiffs agreed to enter into a new service agreement and pay the one-time set up fee for this new contract.”
The FCC pledge to “keep Americans connected” was announced by then-Chairman Ajit Pai as a measure meant to ensure citizens and individuals did not lose broadband internet and telephone service from March to at least the end of June 2020. More than 800 companies pledged to not terminate services to any residential or small business customers and waive any late fees residential or small business customers might incur due to their economic circumstances at the onset of the pandemic.
According to the lawsuit, Altice “had no intention whatsoever of honoring its ‘Pledge’ to Keep Americans Connected.” From the complaint:
“To the contrary, Altice treated its small business customers in exactly the same manner as they had prior to the pandemic, namely: if monthly bills were not paid, service would be terminated, and late fees would be imposed for payments that were not made in a timely manner.
Neither Plaintiff, nor similarly situated Class Members, had any idea that what Altice publicly proclaimed in its “Pledge” was, in fact, an outright fabrication. To the contrary, Altice’s small business customers, such as Plaintiff and other similarly situated Class Members, accepted Altice’s Pledge as true and relied on Altice’s false promises to their detriment, as set forth in detail below.”
The lawsuit looks to represent all current and former Altice (and related company) cable and internet subscribers who, as “non-essential” small businesses, were forced to shut down their business operations from March 15 to June 15, 2020 and whose services were terminated by Altice based on non-payment of bills during that period, and who paid Altice a “One Time Activity” fee in order to restore their Altice phone and internet services.
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