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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:In 1996, Congress opened local telephone service to competition by enacting the Federal Telecommunications Act (FTA). Telephone companies that provide local calling services are referred to as local exchange carriers or LECs. Certain LECs such as Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. that historically held a monopoly in providing local calling services are referred to as incumbent LECs or ILECs. Historically, the ILECs owned extensive telecommunication networks. Nonincumbent LECs compete with ILECs and are called competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs). The FTA requires each ILEC to share its network with competitors. The FTA allows a CLEC to access an ILEC’s network in three ways: by purchasing local telephone services at wholesale rates for resale to end users; by leasing elements of the incumbent’s network on an unbundled basis; and by interconnecting its own facilities with the ILEC’s network. Under the FTA, interconnection agreements must be approved by the Public Utility Commission (PUC). CLECs may, but need not, separately negotiate contracts with the ILEC. If a CLEC chooses not to separately negotiate a contract, the FTA also allows it to adopt an existing agreement that any other CLEC has entered into with the ILEC, or a standard-form “T2A” agreement developed by Southwestern Bell and other CLECs. If parties cannot reach an agreement when negotiating the terms of an interconnection agreement, then either party can ask the PUC to arbitrate the unresolved issues. Each of the CLEC plaintiffs in this case contracted with Southwestern Bell by adopting either the T2A agreement or an existing previously negotiated agreement. The interconnection agreements entered into by the parties provided that Southwestern Bell would charge the plaintiff CLECs between $5 and $25 for certain services. After the plaintiffs and Southwestern Bell entered into their interconnection agreements, the PUC conducted two arbitrations to set rates for other CLECs’ interconnection agreements when those CLECs were unable to agree on negotiated prices with Southwestern Bell. Those proceedings are referred to as the “Mega-Arb” and “AccuTel” arbitrations. In the Mega-Arb and AccuTel proceedings, the PUC set rates for certain services to be supplied by Southwestern Bell at prices between $2.56 and $5. The plaintiffs in this case had contracted to pay between $5 and $25 for the same services. Following the PUC’s decisions in the Mega-Arb and AccuTel proceedings, the plaintiffs brought suit, asserting that Southwestern Bell had overcharged them, because the rates in their contracts were substantially higher than the rates set in the Mega-Arb and AccuTel arbitration proceedings. The causes of action asserted by plaintiffs included: violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act; 2. unjust enrichment; 3. violations of Texas antitrust laws; and 4. fraud. Southwestern Bell removed the suit to federal court but the federal court remanded the case. The plaintiffs and Southwestern Bell both moved for summary judgment in state court. In the alternative, Southwestern Bell also sought referral to the PUC on the basis that the PUC had primary jurisdiction to decide threshold issues regarding the interconnection agreements. The trial court denied the motions. Southwestern Bell then sought mandamus relief from the 13th Court of Appeals, but the 13th Court denied relief. Southwestern Bell then requested the Texas Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus directing the trial court t refer the issues regarding the interconnection agreements to the PUC; and abate the case while the PUC reviews the issues referred. The PUC filed an amicus brief in support of Southwestern Bell’s position. HOLDING:The court conditionally granted the petition for a writ of mandamus. Southwestern Bell argued that referral to the PUC and abatement of the suit was required, because the PUC has primary jurisdiction over questions regarding interpretation and enforceability of the parties’ interconnection agreements. The court agreed. Under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction, the court stated, trial courts should defer to appropriate administrative agencies when: the agency is staffed with experts trained in handling complex problems within the agency’s purview; and great benefit is derived from the agency’s uniform interpretation of laws within its purview and the agency’s rules and regulations when courts and juries might reach differing results under similar fact situations. Both requirements, the court stated, are met in this case. In addition to the PUC’s having expertise in interpreting interconnection agreements, its uniform interpretation of the agreements provides great benefit, the court stated. Although the PUC cannot grant all the relief that the plaintiffs request, the court noted that the PUC was authorized to make initial determinations regarding the validity of the interconnection agreements and their interpretation. Once the PUC has made its determinations regarding the interconnection agreements, the court stated that then the trial court may proceed with its adjudicative function. The CLECs contended that mandamus relief was unwarranted in the case, because Southwestern Bell waited too long to seek a hearing on primary jurisdiction and waited too long before pursuing mandamus relief after the trial court refused to abate the case. But the court found that the facts did not present a situation in which Southwestern Bell failed to timely assert the issue of primary jurisdiction or was barred by prejudicial delay from asserting that the PUC had primary jurisdiction. Thus, the court held that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to abate the case to allow the PUC to exercise its primary jurisdiction. The court further held that: 1. permitting trial to go forward before the PUC completed its exercise of primary jurisdiction would interfere with the important legislatively mandated function and purpose of the PUC in the construct established by the FTA; and 2. there was no adequate remedy by appeal if trial proceeded before the PUC completes exercise of its primary jurisdiction. OPINION:Johnson, J., delivered the opinion of the court.

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