For years, Frontier Communications has promised customers that they won’t be locked into contracts when they sign up for the company’s Internet service.
“No contract. No signatures. No worries,” reads one Frontier advertisement. Another ad says, “There’s no contract. Yep, that’s right, no contract.”
Even so, Frontier wants to hold customers to “terms and conditions” that bar people from filing class-action lawsuits in disputes over their Internet service. Frontier’s customers are now asking a judge to keep a lawsuit alive and let them take the case before a jury – a request that the company strongly opposes.
“Frontier constantly advertises that there is ‘no contract,’ but now they’re trying to say that all of us gave up our rights to a trial by jury because of a paragraph hidden four layers deep on their website,” said Michael Sheridan, a Frontier customer who’s suing the company. “They want it both ways.”
Last year, Frontier customers sued the company in Lincoln Circuit Court, alleging Frontier improperly “throttles” back its Internet service and provides speeds slower than advertised. Frontier didn’t notify customers about the practice, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also alleges that Frontier’s Internet service frequently doesn’t work, and customers must repeatedly turn their modems off and on to restore service.
Earlier this year, Frontier asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Internet customers agreed to “terms and conditions” that require the two sides to settle disputes through arbitration – but not through class-action lawsuits or jury trials.
In the recent filing, Frontier customers argue the company can’t enforce its arbitration requirement because there’s no contract.
Frontier counters that its “no contract” promise simply means that customers don’t have to commit to Internet service for a specific time period – and has nothing to do with its terms and conditions.
Frontier says it first notified customers about its terms and conditions – which include a section about arbitration – in 2011 by giving website link. A year later, the company attached a “special insert” to customers’ bills that described the arbitration requirement in detail.
In last week’s filing, customers said Frontier’s notice had a “minuscule font, single-spaced over six pages,” and none of the customers suing the company ever read it.
Frontier also has said it can change its terms and conditions at any time, after giving a 30-day notice. The Internet provider shouldn’t be allowed to enforce “ever-shifting” provisions, lawyers for Frontier’s customers assert in last week’s filing.
In many rural communities in West Virginia, Frontier is the only company that sells broadband Internet service.
“The notice provides cold comfort to Frontier customers who have few alternatives for Internet service,” wrote Jonathan Marshall, who’s representing Frontier customer, in a court filing last week. “Frontier’s customers are given take-it-or-leave-it modifications, which is especially injurious considering that Frontier’s major advertising campaign touts ‘no contract” Internet services.”
Customers suing Frontier also note that they signed up for the company’s Internet service before Frontier posted its terms, which included the arbitration requirement.
The lawsuit alleges the company took part in a “deceptive scheme to increase profits and deny West Virginia consumers access to high-speed broadband Internet.” The latest filing says customers received only five percent to 10 percent of the Internet speeds that Frontier advertised. The practice saved the company a “fortune” in data costs, customers allege.
“Frontier’s practice of overcharging and simultaneously failing to provide the high-speed, broadband level of service it advertises has created high profits for Frontier but left West Virginia in the digital dark age,” Marshall said in the filing.
Lincoln Circuit Judge Jay Hoke is scheduled to hear Frontier’s request to dismiss the lawsuit on Aug. 19.
Two law firms – Bailey Glasser in Charleston, and Klein, Sheridan & Glazer in Huntington – are representing Frontier customers in the class-action suit.
Frontier lawyers declined comment last week. In a January filing, the company said arbitration offers a “simple and straightforward” cost-free process to resolve disputes. Frontier plans to file a response to the latest filing in the class-action suit in the coming days.