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Walton v. NYSDOCS

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Synopsis

Walton v. NYSDOCS is a class action lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) challenging the constitutionality of the State’s monopoly telephone contract with MCI/Verizon, which forced family members and friends of prisoners to pay exorbitant collect calling rates to speak with their loved ones in prison.

Status

The Court of Appeals ruled against Plaintiffs 6-1 on November 23, 2009. In the majority ruling, Judge Graffeo wrote that the "constitutional challenges...were lacking in merit," although he added that the opinion "should not be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the former DOCS policy." In dissent, Judge Smith endorsed three of the Plaintiffs' four constitutional claims, and argued that the state is "exploiting its monopoly of the "inmate market."

Description

Walton v. NYSDOCS is a class action lawsuit brought against the New York State Department of Correctional Services (NYSDOCS). It charges NYSDOCS and MCI with charging exorbitant telephone rates that constitute a financial burden on the families, friends and lawyers of inmates. The suit claims that the phone rates violate plaintiffs’ and class members’ due process and equal protection rights as well as their rights to freedom of speech and association under the New York State Constitution.

Between the 1980s and 2007, families, friends and lawyers of inmates in New York State had no choice but to pay phone rates 630 percent higher than normal consumer rates to speak with New York State prisoners. The high rates were the result of a contract between the New York State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) and MCI, through which DOCS received 57.5 percent of MCI’s profits from providing telephone service in New York State prisons.

In January 2007, after years of advocacy by CCR, Governor Eliot Spitzer announced that New York State would cease to demand the 57.5% kick-back; thus reducing the telephone rates by more than half. The announcement was followed by passage of state legislation to prohibit commission charges, and ensure reasonable rates for New York State prisoners. Walton v. NYSDOCS continues, however, as Plaintiffs seek money damages for commissions collected by the State between November of 2003 and April of 2007, when the new contract went into effect. Plaintiffs also seek a declaration that the state kickback amounted to an unlegislated, unconstitutional backdoor tax on prison families, as the money collected by the State was used to fund general state services now financed through tax dollars.

On December 18, 2008 the Appellate Division, Third Department dismissed Walton for the second time. The case was before them after the Court of Appeals reinstated all petitioners’ constitutional claims after the lower court’s dismissed on statute of limitations grounds. This time, the appellate division held that each of our constitutional claims should be dismissed on the law. The Court dismissed our unlawful tax claims by comparing the tax to a legitimate business expense, similar to the access fees demanded of payphone companies by property owners. In analyzing our first amendment claim, the court assumed, without deciding, that prisoners have some right to reasonable phone access, but that we stated no violation as we have not alleged that the fees completely bar phone communication. They dismissed our takings and equal protection claim out of hand.

We appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York. The court ruled against us 6-1 on November 23, 2009. In the majority ruling, Judge Graffeo wrote that the "constitutional challenges...were lacking in merit," although he added that the opinion "should not be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the former DOCS policy." In dissent, Judge Smith quoted Arsberry v. Illinois, and argued that the state is "exploiting its monopoly of the "inmate market."

The case was filed in the Supreme Court of New York, Albany County, in early 2004. The plaintiffs include family members and attorneys or New York State prisoners who have been forced to pay exorbitant fees for collect calls in order to communicate with loved ones, maintain marriages, and speak with their clients. The financial burden imposed by the state on the families of inmates led plaintiff to accrue substantial debt, and was a significant hardship. The high rates charged under the monopoly collect call system also directly undermined the correctional system’s goal of maintaining family and community ties to increase the odds of successful re-entry into society upon release from prison.

Lead plaintiff Ivey Walton is a disabled, senior-citizen living on a fixed income, whose son and nephew are incarcerated at the Clinton facility in Dannemora, NY, more than 350 miles away from her Brooklyn home. The exorbitant telephone costs imposed by the state’s unlawful commission charges made it extremely difficult for Ms. Walton to maintain her connection with her son and nephew. The other individual plaintiffs include the case are Joann Harris and Ramona Austin. The case was also brought on behalf of the New York State Defenders Association and the Office of the Appellate Defender. Plaintiffs plan to move to certify the class as soon as possible.

Learn More about the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice.

 

Timeline

On February 25, 2004, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed Walton v. NYSDOCS and MCI in the Supreme Court of New York, Albany County.

On May 7, 2004, DOCS and MCI filed motions to dismiss the case on statute of limitations grounds, and for failure to state a claim.

On June 17, 2004, CCR filed an opposition brief against the motion to dismiss.

On June, 25, 2004, CCR staff attorney Rachel Meeropol argued its opposition to dismissal before Judge George Ceresia at the New York State Supreme Court in Albany.

On October 8, 2004, Judge Ceresia granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss on statute of limitations grounds, dismissing the case in its entirety. The court held that the case should have been filed within four months of the last contract between DOCS and MCI, signed in 2001.

On August 15, 2005, CCR appealed the lower court decision to the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department, asking the court to find the lower court’s dismissal in error. Plaintiffs argued that the Court applied the wrong statute of limitations to the challenge, that their claim did not accrue until the Public Service commission approved the latest telephone rates, and that the case was timely due to Defendants’ continuing violation of their rights.

On October 12, 2005, the defendants filed their appellate brief, urging the court to affirm the lower court’s dismissal. CCR filed its reply on October 22, 2005, and CCR staff attorney Rachel Meeropol argued the case before the appellate court on November 21, 2005.

On January 19, 2006, the Appellate Division, Third Department affirmed the lower court’s decision to dismissing the lawsuit on statute of limitation grounds.

On February 24, 2006, CCR served a motion to the Appellate Division for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals (New York’s highest court). More than a brief on the merits of the case, a “leave to appeal” is an opportunity for counsel to convince the court that their case is worthy of the court's time and scarce judicial resources. On April 5, 2006, CCR received notice of the Appellate Division’s decision to deny the motion for leave to appeal.

On May 4, 2006, CCR filed a motion for leave to appeal this decision to New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. The Legal Aid Society filed an amicus brief in support of plaintiffs’ motion, asking the high court to hear the case due to the importance of the constitutional issues raised. The Court of Appeals granted Plaintiffs’ motion for leave to appeal on July 5, 2006.

On September 18, 2006, CCR filed its appeal brief in the New York State Court of Appeals. Defendants opposing briefs were filed on November 8, 2006. 38 organizations, over 50 individuals, and 15 elected officials filed "friend of the court" briefs with the Court of Appeals in support of plaintiffs’ position.

On January 8, 2007, the night before oral argument at the Court of Appeals, Governor Spitzer announced that he would eliminate the provision in the prison telephone contract that requires MCI/Verizon to pay 57.5 percent of its profits to New York State, effective April 1, 2007.

On January 9, 2007, CCR’s lead attorney in Walton Rachel Meeropol argued before the Court of Appeals that the lower courts applied the wrong statute of limitations and incorrectly determined when that statute began to run.

On February 20, 2007, the New York State Court of Appeals reversed the lower courts’ dismissals and reinstated all of plaintiffs’ constitutional claims. The Court did however, uphold the dismissal of MCI from the case. The Court remanded the case back to the Supreme Court to rule on whether the plaintiffs' constitutional claims state a cause of action.

In April of 2007 Defendants filed a supplemental motion to dismiss the case, arguing that plaintiffs constitutional claims were inadequate. Plaintiffs opposed the motion, and oral argument was heard by Judge Ceresia on July 6, 2007 in Rensselaer County.

In December, 2007, Judge Ceresia affirmed the dismissal.

On September 8, 2008 CCR attorney Darius Charney appealed the dismissal in oral arguments before the State of New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division Third Judicial Department, arguing that plaintiffs' constitutional rights were violated and they deserve monetary compensation for the illegal tax paid over ten years that amounted to $225 million.

On December 18, 2008 the Appellate Division, Third Department dismissed Walton for the second time.

On May 27, 2009 Plaintiffs appealed to the Court of Appeals.

On November 23, 2009, the Court of Appeals ruled against the plaintiffs, with one Judge dissenting.