Cable refunds may aid education Judge earmarks unclaimed money from late-fee suit

December 02, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

In a decision that could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars for equipment and programs for Baltimore schools, a judge has ruled that half of any unclaimed money awarded in a lawsuit over late fees against the city's cable franchise will be used for cable TV education projects.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Gary I. Strausberg's latest order, issued in a 12-page "final judgment" last week, is part of an unprecedented decision against United Cable Television of Baltimore.

In September, Strausberg ruled that the $5 late-payment fee charged by the cable company is "unlawful and inappropriate." Strausberg said in his opinion that the fee should have been 50 cents or less and has ordered the cable company to repay $7.59 million to its subscribers.

Brian Eberle, a lawyer for the cable company, said the company plans to file an appeal of Strausberg's decision about the late-payment fee.

"We think this is an area where there is a difference in opinion among judges," Eberle said. "We think the $5 late fee is appropriate."

Strausberg said in his ruling that the cable company won't have to repay the late fees until the appeal process has ended, which could take more than a year.

Alabama and Washington have upheld the $5 late fee as appropriate, but Strausberg's decision has raised concern across the country about how much cable companies charge their subscribers.

In Illinois, the state attorney general has launched a consumer fraud investigation against United Cable's parent company, Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) of Englewood, Colo., and dozens of lawsuits have been filed throughout the nation against TCI and other cable companies because of their late fees.

If Strausberg's ruling stands, the cable company will issue proof-of-claim forms to its customers after the appeals process has ended. Customers who paid late fees between 1992 and now and believe they are due a refund must send those forms to the cable company to receive their refund, according to Strausberg's latest decision.

The cable company also will run half-page ads in The Sun and neighborhood publications about claiming the refund, Strausberg's order states.

In class-action suits, money usually goes unclaimed. Strausberg said that money should benefit Baltimore residents, rather than have the money go back to the cable company.

In his decision Wednesday, Strausberg ordered that half the unclaimed money be used for the Children's Cable Education Fund and half for the mayor's cable and communications office, the agency that regulates the cable company. The judge's order did not specify how the money was to be used by the office, which is funded principally from the city's general fund.

The education fund would be used to install cable television in schools without such programming and to purchase cable-ready televisions, videocassette recorders, TV carts and projection TV screens. The fund also would be used to establish teacher in-service teleconferences, homework hot lines, teen-parent education specials and other programs.

The fund would be administered by a three-member board, of which two will be appointed by the chair of the city's school board from among the board members and one by the mayor from the city's cable office.

"I think that's a fair way of doing it," said Philip Friedman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "You're ultimately going to have some monies left over. We don't want those monies going back to the cable company."

Pub Date: 12/02/97

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