How to fight AT&T in small claims court and WIN

The thought of “going to court” with a big company like AT&T, with their stable of expensive lawyers, can intimidate even the most stalwart of consumers. But when the court in question is small claims court, where lawyers aren’t allowed and court procedures are much more informal, handling your own case can be a relatively easy and painless way to get satisfaction.  This guide will cover the highlights of what you need to represent yourself and have your voice heard.

Before you begin

The most important document you’ll need is the contract you signed with AT&T.  You’ll need this to prove certain aspects of your case.

File in your state’s small claims court

Find your state in this list and follow the links to see how and where to file. In most states, filing is a matter of filling out a form and paying the filing fee, which typically ranges from $40-80. Most small claims courts adhere to the loser-pays philosophy, so you may be able to get that filing fee back if you’re successful in court. Most states will let you download the forms and fill them out at home, but if you have questions, take the form to the court clerk and have them help you. Its important to get this step right, so ask questions if you have them and have the clerk check your form before you file!

Notification and subpoena

Once you’ve filed in your jurisdiction, you have to notify the defendant (AT&T) of the filing. This is also the step that allows you to require AT&T to provide information as well. In Matt’s case, he subpoenaed the records for the tower closest to his home along with the average speed of users in his area.

Proving your case

Your day in court has finally arrived—now what? Unfortunately, its not quite as simple as showing up and telling the judge you want your $850 too. You’ll need to prove your case, but here are the points to make in your argument:

  • You were promised unlimited data by the contract you signed with AT&T. Have your a copy of your contract handy, and highlight the sections that support your case, in particular the portions promising you unlimited data.
  • AT&T did in fact limit your service: this is a well-documented practice of AT&T’s, but you can prove it in your own case using tools like Speedtest or Glasnost, which can check for different kinds of throttling. Check your bandwidth frequently, even before suspected throttling, and log your findings, because its important to show your normal rate of download versus your throttled rate. In Matt’s case, he was seeing a throttled rate of 0.13Mbps, versus a normal rate of 3.46Mbps, a 20x slowdown of his normal rate.  The best evidence of this would be to check and log your bandwidth several times a day, for several days both before and after the throttling kicks in.
  • The throttling of your bandwidth by AT&T caused you some kind of economic damage, which is the basis for the monetary amount you specify in your lawsuit. In Matt’s case, the damage was an inability to use Netflix, a service which he paid for and had a reasonable expectation to be able to use. Your damages may be based on something like that, an inability to do your work, or anything that has demonstrable economic value. In general you can ask for your state’s maximum award, but the judge is going to use this part of your argument in setting damages if you successfully plead your case.
  • AT&T claims to have the fastest network. Under the doctrine of “justifiable reliance“, that a reasonable person of similar education and background would accept their claim on its face and make an economic decision based on the content of their claim, they are obligated to make a reasonable attempt at providing such service.
  • AT&T’s methodology for choosing a cap was unpredictable and vague. The top 5% of users in an area found themselves throttled,
  • AT&T has defended their throttling in the past by saying that the top 5% of users is responsible for network congestion. But a closer look disproves this theory:
    • Is the premise true? Uncapped users on average utilize an average of 3.97GB data transfer per billing cycle, versus 3.19 for capped plans, according to a study by Validas, which amounts to an average of an additional 25% bandwidth. AT&T routinely provides data plans up to 5GB per month, which leads one to believe that the average uncapped user is well within their ability to provide service.
    • Is it necessary? AT&T, until March 1, began throttling unlimited customers who had utilized between 1.5GB and 2.0GB in a given billing cycle. AT&T has had a 3GB billing plan for over a year at a similar price point to their old unlimited plan. Clearly they had the ability to deliver the promised service at least up to that point, and declined to do so as a matter of policy. (As of March 1, their stated policy is to throttle unlimited customers starting at 3GB of data transfer, which stil flies in the face of an unlimited plan.)

Based on the above arguments you have a good chance of a similar outcome in your own case.  However, small claims decisions are not precedent-setting, so your mileage my vary depending on the jurisdiction you file in. AT&T has stated an intent to appeal the decision in Matt’s case, and if they do so in yours, do not expect the money to come right away as any judgement will be held up while the appeal is processed.

This is important.

The reason we started PublikDemand was to help consumers take back the power from corporations who treat their customers capriciously, depending on the difficulty of getting resolution to complaints through a bureaucracy designed to thwart consumers. For far too long the balance of power has been in their favor. It would be a lovely world if we didn’t have to go through these methods to get resolution, but if everyone who has a case takes it to small claims court, we can send a message as consumers that making it painful to resolve complaints isn’t going to work anymore.

We’ve had enough.

Comments