Recipients of collect telephone calls from prisoners in New York state prisons brought this action in the state's court of claims on September 27, 2000. The lawsuit challenged a 1996 exclusive contract between the state's prison system and MCI, a telephone service provider which had won the right to provide exclusive telephone services for the state's inmates through the state's competitive bidding process. In addition to asserting tort, tax, regulatory, and business law-based claims, the plaintiffs argued that the agreement violated their rights to due process, freedom of speech, and equal protection. The court dismissed the claims as time-barred under state law and the Appellate Division affirmed in July 2003. Bullard v. State, 763 N.Y.S.2d 371 (N.Y App. Div. 2003).
In March 2000, a companion action had been filed as Byrd v. Goord, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. (This case appears in the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse as case PC-NY-50.) As in the state court of claims case, the plaintiffs were a group of family members, legal counsel and others who received collect telephone calls from New York state inmates. The defendants were state prison administrators and the telephone service provider (MCI). The plaintiffs, relying on 42 U.S.C. § 1983, were represented by attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights and private counsel. Complaining of excessively high rates for these collect calls and of a lack of options for alternate telephone service, as well as the high commission (nearly 60% of gross revenues) paid by MCI to the state under the contract, the plaintiffs asserted that their constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments had been violated, specifically their rights of freedom of association and to contract, as well as rights to due process and to equal protection of law. Plaintiffs also alleged anti-trust and tortuous interference with contract claims.
The defendants filed motions to dismiss in the federal case, which were decided on August 29, 2005. In an unpublished order in Byrd v. Goord, District Judge George B. Daniels granted the defendants' motions to dismiss the plaintiffs' challenges to the exclusive services contract and to the collect call-only system, but he denied dismissal of the constitutional claims relating to the high-percentage commissions the state received under the contract. That ruling was followed by discovery proceedings, further motions and an effort to have the case certified as a class action. Meanwhile, a new governor took office on January 8, 2007, and ordered that the commission received by the state prison system be eliminated by April 1, 2007. The telephone service contract was restructured to comply with the governor's directive. The defendants moved to dismiss the case as moot. On September 26, 2007, in an unpublished order, Judge Daniels granted the defense request, noting also that new state legislation had been enacted which prohibited the prison system from accepting or receiving revenue in excess of reasonable operating costs for providing telephone services for prisoners.
While the federal case was pending and the state court of claims case was on appeal, the defendants amended their contract in May 2003, implementing different rates for the collect calls and retaining the commission arrangement. As a result, MCI filed a revised tariff with the state's Public Service Commission (PSC), which considered the proposed rate changes. Some of the plaintiffs and other recipients of the collect calls from inmates filed comments with the state PSC and argued that the inmate telephone system violated the constitutional rights of the prisoners and their families. The PSC decided in October 2003, that its jurisdiction extended to MCI but not to the prison system. In this way, the PSC declined to review the 57.5% commission retained by the prison system from collect calls made under the contract with MCI and approved the remaining portion of the rates retained by MCI as just and reasonable.
On February 26, 2004, three family members of state prisoners and two non-profit legal defense service corporations sued the state prison system and MCI in a New York Supreme Court (trial court in the New York system). Plaintiffs sought injunctive relief and damages. They alleged multiple causes of action, including violations of state constitutional provisions concerning the power to tax, due process rights, equal protection, and free speech and association rights. The trial court dismissed the claims as time-barred under state law and the state's Appellate Division affirmed that ruling. Walton v. New York State Department of Correctional Services, 808 N.Y.S.2d 483 (N.Y. App. Div. 2006).
Further appeal by the plaintiffs, joined by amici curiae from the Legal Aid Society, the Innocence Project, The Sentencing Project and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, among others, resulted in a ruling by the Court of Appeals of New York on February 20, 2007, in Walton v. New York State Department of Correctional Services, 863 N.E.2d 1001 (N.Y. 2007). The court affirmed the dismissals of all but the constitutional claims, finding that they were timely when filed. That was because the applicable four month statute of limitations did not run until the plaintiffs had exhausted their administrative remedies, which did not occur until the PSC review was complete on October 30, 2003. Thus, the February 2004, filing was timely. (Of interest, Judge Eugene F. Piggott, Jr., noted in his ruling that the commissions received by the state from this contract were placed in an account used primarily for programs that benefit prisoners, with a small percentage of the funds being used for maintenance of the telephone system.)
After the case was sent back to his court, trial judge George B. Ceresi ruled on December 14, 2007, that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim of violation of the state's constitutional provisions, in that (1) the prison system's collection of commission on gross revenue generated by collect telephone calls from prisoners was a tariff rather than a tax; (2) higher rates for collect telephone calls from prisoners did not result in an unconstitutional taking; (3) utilizing a single-provider collect call telephone system charging a higher rate to recipients of prisoner collect calls did not constitute an improper classification for purposes of invoking the Equal Protection Clause; and (4) plaintiffs' rights to freedom of speech and/or association were within the contours of the prisoners' similar rights which, as prisoners, were circumscribed. Walton v. New York State Department of Correctional Services, 849 N.Y.S.2d 395 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2007). The judge dismissed plaintiffs' petition.
We have no further information about this case.Mike Fagan - 04/30/2008