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Carrier Channel: Carriers Agree to Settlement in Rights-of-Way Land Disputes

Posted: 9/2003

Carriers Agree to Settlement in Rights-of-Way Land Disputes

By Josh Long

A judge has granted

preliminary
approval of a settlement agreement in a class-action lawsuit charging four
telecommunications carriers with laying fiber cables on rights of way controlled
by railroads without getting the permission of the adjacent landowners.

Up to 360,000 plaintiffs are entitled to claims totaling an
estimated $142.5 million, says Michael Hyman, an attorney with the law firm of
Much Shelist Freed Denenberg Ament & Rubenstein P.C. that is representing
the plaintiffs.

Judge Wayne Andersen also entered an order staying about 40
similar cases in state and federal courts pending around the country. Plaintiffs
in those cases would be entitled to share of the pot of money under the
settlement agreement.

The injunction … will affect cases that are near trial
much more than other cases, so class members and attorneys in those cases are
more likely to oppose the injunction, says Nels Ackerson, an attorney representing landowners in
several rights-of-way lawsuits. In late July, Ackerson was still weighing his
options. We have the largest number of classes and the largest classes that
have been certified … so we are still considering the situation in the context
of the overall settlement proposal and the improvements that were made, added
the lawyer, a partner with Sommer Barnard Ackerson P.C.

Under the settlement agreement, the total amount Sprint Corp.
and three other carriers owe the landowners partly depends on how many
plaintiffs opt into the settlement agreement. Defendants Sprint, Level 3
Communications Inc., Qwest Communications International Inc. and WilTel
Communications Group Inc. also have agreed to pay attorney fees if they do not
exceed $28.5 million, according to Hyman.

Hyman says it took about two years to negotiate a settlement
agreement in a case that was filed in 1999 in the U.S. District Court of the
Northern District of Illinois. Under the agreement, landowners who can show in a
deed they own rights of way adjacent to the property occupied by fiber cables
will be compensated. On land where the railroad owns a property interest in a
right of way, landowners are entitled to a smaller amount of money, Hyman says.

Ackerson says the original settlement proposal called for the
defendants to pay qualified landowners 75 cents per foot less attorneys fees
and other deductions. Under the agreement, he says, the carriers will pay landowners
$2 per foot less attorneys fees and deductions.

During an interview in July, Qwest spokesman Steve Hammack
said a final settlement agreement is expected in one year to 15 months after the
landowners decide whether to opt into the settlement agreement. He said he does
not know how much Qwest will have to pay.

Hyman says it will take nine months to a year to notify
landowners.

Level 3 declined comment and a WilTel spokesperson did not
return a phone call seeking comment. A Sprint spokesman said in a statement: Sprint
is gratified that this long process has come to a conclusion in a manner that is
mutually beneficial to both the telecommunications carriers and the class
members and we look forward to finalizing the settlement.

Links
Level 3 Communications Inc.
www.level3.com

Much Shelist Freed Denenberg Ament & Rubenstein P.C.
www.muchlaw.com
Sommer Barnard Ackerson P.C.
www.sbalawyers.com

Sprint Corp. www.sprint.com
Qwest Communications International Inc.
www.qwest.com

WilTel Communications Group Inc.
www.wiltel.com

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