Maryland court ruling bars lawsuits over `junk' faxes

State law omits right for individuals to sue, appeals panel determines

February 01, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Maryland residents and businesses cannot sue "junk fax" advertisers in state court under a 1991 federal consumer protection law because state law does not give consumers that power, the Court of Special Appeals ruled this week.

"It will make Maryland the only state in the country that does not allow private suits under the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act," said lawyer Stephen H. Ring, who was seeking to press a class action lawsuit. "I think it is ripe to be reversed on appeal."

The court upheld a Montgomery County judge's decision dismissing the lawsuit against Investors' Alert Inc., and Access Financial Consulting Inc.

Ring contended that the Texas-based companies allowed the Investors' Alert newsletter to be faxed to up to 50,000 machines at a time without permission.

Fax broadcasting is the subject of lawsuits pending in several states and the District of Columbia.

Consumers have complained that their machines get tied up with unsolicited or "spam" faxes.

Robert G. Lowman Jr., who represented the Texas-based companies in the recent lawsuit, said the ruling puts enforcement squarely in the hands of the attorney general.

"If the court had ruled the other way, anytime someone received a facsimile that fell within the purview of the act, they could walk over to their lawyer's office and a class action could be filed," he said.

Ring, who brought the lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court for a Bethesda architect's office, sought damages of $1,500 for each of potentially thousands of faxes.

The Circuit Court granted Investors' Alert's request to dismiss the lawsuit, and the intermediate appeals court agreed.

Writing for a three-judge Court of Special Appeals panel, Judge Mary Ellen Barbera said that while the federal law says consumer complaints should be brought in state court, Maryland law omitted a right for individuals to sue under it.

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