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Families Win Victory in Court of Appeals on Prison Telephone Challenge

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On February 20, 2007, The Court of Appeals ruled that a constitutional challenge brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of New York family members who pay a grossly inflated rate to receive phone calls from their loved ones in state prisons must be allowed to move forward.

The lawsuit, Walton v. NYSDOCS and MCI, seeks an order prohibiting the State and MCI from charging exorbitant rates to the family members of prisoners to finance a 57.5% kickback to the State and money damages for the recipients of those calls. MCI charges these family members a 630% markup over regular consumer rates to receive a collect call from their loved ones, the only way possible to speak with them.

The case was dismissed in 2004 by Judge George Ceresia of the Supreme Court of New York, Albany County, citing issues of timeliness and the Appellate Division affirmed that dismissal in 2006.

The Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, agreed to hear the case in July of 2006, and reversed the lower courts' decisions. In its opinion, the Court of Appeals held that the lower courts erred in dismissing plaintiffs' constitutional claims as untimely. The Court held that plaintiffs acted reasonably in bringing their complaints to the Public Service Commission, the administrative body that regulates telephone rates, before bringing the case in State Court.

"We are thrilled with the Court's ruling" said Rachel Meeropol, the attorney handling the case for the Center for Constitutional Rights. "The family members and friends of prisoners in New York State have sought a ruling on the constitutionality of New York's prison telephone system for years. That day is now in sight."

Plaintiff Ivey Walton also embraced the decision. "I can't talk to my son in prison simply because I can't afford to pay MCI's crazy rates. No one should be cut off from their family, just so the State can make a profit. I'm so happy the courts didn't turn their backs on this injustice."

The Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case on January 9, 2007, the day after Governor Spitzer announced that the State would soon cease collecting the challenged "kickback." "We were impressed by Governor Spitzer's principled decision" explained Meeropol, "but we still need the Court to declare that plaintiffs' rights have been violated to ensure that no future administration reinstates the illegal tax, and to compensate those individuals who have been injured by the State's past illegal actions."

Craig Acorn, co-counsel on the case at Community Service Society also welcomed the news: "The Court's decision represents a long-awaited recognition that impoverished and stigmatized New Yorker's seeking justice can have their grievances heard and the wrongs they've suffered made right."

Judge Pigott wrote the opinion for the Court. Judge Smith wrote a concurring opinion in which he agreed that plaintiffs' claims should move forward, but acknowledged that this decision was "influenced" by the fact that plaintiffs raised "substantial" constitutional claims. Judge Read dissented.

The Court remanded the case back to the Supreme Court, to rule on whether plaintiffs' Constitutional claims state a cause of action.

Previous members of the Center for Constitutional Rights legal team on Walton include Barbara Olshansky and Robert Bloom.

 

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.