Baltimore County files second lawsuit against AT&T over fiber-optic network

Officials say company did not get permission to lay new lines

Baltimore County sues AT&T over laying of fiber-optic lines

July 16, 2005|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County was already in a big-money legal battle with AT&T, accusing the telecommunications giant of illegally laying a 1980s-era fiber-optic network without bothering to ask permission, when county officials made what they describe as a startling discovery: signs that the company might be secretly laying new lines.

That find -- first along Shawan Road this year and later in Oregon Ridge Park and the Monkton area -- led the county to file a second multimillion-dollar lawsuit this week against AT&T.

The county alleges that the company purposely avoided telling anyone about its plans in order to skirt rent payments and the county's permitting and franchising process.

"There's evidence of fresh digging," said Deputy County Attorney John Beverungen. "It's definitely an ongoing thing."

The county's two lawsuits -- the first seeking $100 million in damages, the most recent, $5 million -- are among dozens of claims filed against telecommunications companies in the last decade over the way their fiber-optic lines were installed.

But while many of those suits have been class action claims on behalf of landowners who say they were never paid for the use of their land, Baltimore County officials say their lawsuits also go to the heart of government's role as regulator and guardian of public safety. Many lines, such as gas and cable, are under the ground, county officials said.

"We need to know who's digging up our roads and our property," Beverungen said.

AT&T officials declined to discuss the county's lawsuits this week, pointing to the company's policy of not commenting on matters being litigated.

In a December 2003 answer to the county's initial complaint filed in U.S. District Court, the company said its actions, which involved the practice of laying cable along railroad lines, were lawful and done with the agreement of railroad companies.

However, county lawyers and lawyers for plaintiffs in the class action suits filed across the country say negotiating with the railroads isn't enough.

Railroads generally do not own the land they cross but instead have right-of-way agreements to use the property for specific purposes, the attorneys say. The lawsuits allege that the telecommunications companies knew but choose to ignore that fact.

"It took me a while to believe leading companies in the country would ignore the rights of others and take something that didn't belong to them," said Nels Ackerson, a Washington-based lawyer involved in litigation over the fiber-optic lines for more than a decade.

Landowners in Indiana were the first to sue AT&T in 1996 over the practice of laying cable along railroad lines. Their lawsuit became the basis for a nationwide class action that has since been broken into state-by-state claims for settlement.

In settlement papers in the Maryland-based case, AT&T denied "any wrongdoing or any legal liability of any kind" and said the company settled the suits because of both the risks and expense involved in defending the litigation.

The lead plaintiff in the Maryland case, Janie Nicholson, said she had no idea, until an out-of-state lawyer called, that AT&T had laid cable on her family's land in the Boyds area of Montgomery County. She considered suing, she said, but was told it would cost too much. Ultimately, her family never received any settlement money, she said, because of an issue with her paperwork. They did receive some money for lending their name to the lawsuit, she said, but she could not recall the amount.

"The whole thing was a ludicrous takeover," she said. "If you or I had encroached on someone else's property, we would have had to pay dearly."

It was the Maryland settlement, which offered property owners damages of $2.20 per linear foot, that alerted Baltimore County officials to the issue, county attorneys said.

Convinced that the settlement offer was way too low -- county lawyers say they believe their land is worth 15 times that -- the county opted out of the class action and filed its own claim in 2003. That claim is based on fiber-optic lines that AT&T acknowledges it laid in railroad rights-of-way in the county.

While the county owns only about 4 of the more than 52 railroad miles in the county, the first lawsuit, which seeks $100 million in compensatory and $300 million in punitive damages, alleges both trespass on the county-owned land and separate claims related to the county's regulation of work done on both public and private land. Those claims allege that AT&T purposely avoided the county's permitting and franchising requirements to speed up construction of its fiber optic network.

County attorneys say AT&T was able to make money off its use of county-owned land for years without paying a cent to the rightful owner.

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