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Judge rejects Frontier request to toss lawsuit filed by WV customers

Frontier Communications customers have every right to file a class-action lawsuit against the company for failing to provide high-speed Internet services it advertised, a judge has ruled.

Frontier, West Virginia’s largest Internet provider, argued that its customers agreed to “terms and conditions” that require the two sides to settle disputes through arbitration — not in court.

But Lincoln County Circuit Judge Jay Hoke found that Frontier buried the arbitration clause on its website and on the last pages of its customer billing inserts. What’s more, Frontier established the arbitration requirement years after customers who’ve sued the company subscribed to Frontier’s Internet service, Hoke said in his ruling.

Hoke rejected Frontier’s request to dismiss the lawsuit and force customers to settle their disputes through arbitration.

“We are finally going to get our day in court,” said Michael Sheridan, a Frontier customer in Greenbrier County suing the Internet provider. “We think this lawsuit is the best chance we’ll ever have of bringing real Internet to rural West Virginia.”

Frontier has asserted it repeatedly informed customers about their contract terms on monthly bills and on the company’s website. Frontier said customers suing the company had the opportunity to cancel their Internet service but never did.

“We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling,” said Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski. “In our view, arbitration provides for fair resolution of consumer concerns that is quicker, simpler, and less expensive than lawsuits in court. We plan to appeal.”

In his order, Hoke put a six-week halt on all lawsuit-related proceedings, giving Frontier time to file its appeal with the state Supreme Court.

In October 2014, Frontier customers sued the company, alleging Frontier “throttles back” its Internet service and provides speeds slower than advertised. Frontier never notified customers about the practice, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit alleges that only 12 percent of Frontier’s customers in West Virginia receive “true” high-speed broadband Internet service. Frontier reduces customers’ Internet speeds to save money and boost profits, according to the suit.

Frontier has responded that the handful of customers suing the company got the Internet service they paid for.

Those suing the company say they never signed an arbitration agreement — or even saw such an agreement.

Hoke reviewed copies of Frontier’s website and bill “stuffers” that included information about the arbitration requirement.

On the website, computer users must scroll to the bottom of the page and click on a “Terms & Conditions” link that’s “buried among 25 other links,” then click on two other links to find the arbitration provision that denies customers’ rights to a jury trial, Hoke wrote in his order. There’s no button to click or box to check that allows customers to agree to Frontier’s terms.

In monthly bills, the arbitration clause shows up one time on the “fourth and last page” of an insert and another time in “miniscule font,” Hoke found.

The bills’ first page lists the amount customers owe — or the amount due — for Internet service that month.

“There is no reason whatsoever for a customer to turn to the last page,” Hoke wrote. “Additionally, the bills contain no prompting that customers should flip to the last page for information concerning Frontier’s desire to alter the customer’s right to a jury trial.”

Frontier, the lone Internet provider in many rural parts of West Virginia, has noted that it offers “cost-free” arbitration for claims on damages up to $10,000. Customers suing the company stand to gain significantly more in damages as part of a court settlement or jury verdict.

The Hurricane law firm Klein, Sheridan & Glazer and the Charleston law firm Bailey & Glasser are representing Frontier’s disgruntled customers.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

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