Control Freaks?: AT&T Wants to Keep You From Suing

AT&T Inc. wants to control how you sue the company.

This week, the Supreme Court is hearing a case that will be crucial in determining the future of consumer rights in the United States. At issue is many companies pages of fine print the documents often include a clause that requires end users, in exchange for a product or service, not to take part in any class-action lawsuits.

In AT&Ts case, the carriers wireless arm has come under fire for apparently reneging on a free” handset deal. In 2002, a California couple took advantage of a free Nokia phone offer. And when they did so, they signed away their rights to initiate a class-action lawsuit should something go wrong.

Something did go wrong. AT&T charged the couple $30.32 in taxes and other frees for a handset that was to have cost nothing.

Now, $30.32 out of one couples pockets doesnt amount to much. But when a company such as AT&T is able to impose small charges like that on hundreds of thousands or even millions of subscribers, huge amounts of money are suddenly at stake. Thats the principle the Supreme Court must weigh, in addition to other factors. For example, class-action lawsuits often result in small individual settlements. The lawyers heading the cases, however, come out the real winners.

Partly because of that, AT&T and other big businesses want the Supreme Court to rule in its favor. Its not clear when the justices will decide on the case.

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