A suit claiming that the private company contracted to provide phone services at nearly every New Jersey correctional facility charges improperly inflated rates has been granted class action status.
U.S. District Senior Judge William J. Martini of the District of New Jersey on Monday approved the plaintiffs’ request for class certification in their case against Global Tel Link and its subsidiaries, lodged over claims that it overcharged for calls and tacked on superfluous fees.
The certification was granted on claims lodged under the unconscionability section of the Consumer Fraud Act and the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment.
The plaintiffs allege that GTL engaged in “unconscionable business practices by setting grossly excessive rates and fees,” Martini wrote in his opinion. Although pricing varied across facilities, the inmates claim that even the lowest rates and fees were “unconscionably high” in relation to the actual cost of providing inmate calling services.
The company provides services for 20 state Department of Corrections facilities and 21 county facilities—every such facility in the state, except for Passaic County’s jail, according to the decision.
GTL, in opposing class certification, argued that in order for conduct to be unconscionable, an element of deception has to be involved.
Martini said: “The court agrees that if the CFA requires deception, then individual questions of fact likely predominate. On the other hand, if conduct can be ‘unconscionable’ without deception, and if unconscionability pertains to a single pattern or practice undertaken by GTL, then ‘questions of law or fact common to class members’ likely predominate over questions affecting individual class members. For reasons set forth in today’s summary judgment opinion, the court finds that a defendant’s business practice does not need to be deceptive in order to be ‘unconscionable’ under the CFA. Further, plaintiffs allege that even the lowest pricing schemes were unconscionably expensive. Plaintiffs therefore satisfy the commonality requirement.”
As for the takings clause count, the argument hinged on whether GTL was a “willful participant in a joint activity with the state or its agents” and if so, whether the state encouraged the company’s alleged price-gouging.
“Although the counties may have selected different ‘options’ from GTL’s [request for proposal], the essential business practice—and its causal relationship to the alleged harm sustained by plaintiffs—is common to all class members. Specifically, the government and GTL formed exclusive contracts under which GTL allegedly shifted the costs of higher site commissions to end users in the form of higher calling rates and ancillary fees,” Martini said.
The plaintiffs’ attorney is James Cecchi of Carella, Byrne, Cecchi, Olstein, Brody & Agnello.
“We are pleased with the court’s decision and look forward to presenting our clients’ case at trial,” Cecchi said in an email.
Aaron Van Nostrand of Greenberg Traurig represents GTL. He did not respond to a request for comment.