by Jim Haigh, Keep Me Posted North America
A major win for consumers is the immediate result of a Federal Class Action recently filed. The defendant swiftly halted all paper billing and statement fees before the case was even heard. The good news, however, only applies to New York residents at this time.
In this lawsuit, Heigl v. Waste Management of New York, LLC (1:19-cv-05487), the plaintiffs are challenging the waste management company’s practice of charging customers a $6.50 fee to receive paper statements. The class action seeks substantial damages, and is still early in the legal process.
The legal challenge is based on a plain reading of New York General Business Law, specifically the provisions of Section 399-ZZZ, Prohibition of Certain Fee Charges (See LINK). This consumer, paper and postal friendly law has not received much attention over nearly a decade since it has been on the books.
The statutory Prohibition of Certain Fee Charges states unequivocally: “no person, partnership, corporation, association or other business entity shall charge a consumer an additional rate or fee or a differential in the rate or fee associated with payment on an account when the consumer chooses to pay by United States mail or receive a paper billing statement.” It further prescribes that: “Every violation of this section shall be deemed a deceptive act and practice subject to enforcement under article twenty-two-A of this chapter.”
While the plain text of NYGBL Sec. 399-ZZZ is crystal clear on remedy, the language used in the original “justification” for the legislation at the time details the many consumer harms needing redress. They echo the same concerns raised today by the Keep Me Posted coalition, and speak to the enduring need for giving consumers the right to choose the way they communicate with their service providers.
“This law is a model of consumer protections that consumers should be aware of, and companies should want to comply with whether or not they’re based in New York,” says Linda Sherry, Director of National Priorities for Consumer Action. “Honoring consumer preferences is just good business. Shifting the cost of doing business onto the least fortunate, disadvantaged and those trapped in the digital divide with an ‘extra bill to get a bill’ on paper is abusive and shortsighted.” As part of the Keep Me Posted coalition, Consumer Action recently assisted in producing a Fact Sheet that summarizes consumers views on this topic.
The legislation’s authors and supporters, addressing digital disenfranchisement, wrote in part: “In recent months, there have been instances of major companies proposing to impose an additional fee on the accounts of customers that choose to receive a paper bill or pay by United States mail. Such paper billing and payment fees unfairly impact consumers that do not have Internet access in their homes, as well as, those that are uncomfortable using the Internet, including many senior citizens and those concerned about personal privacy. Paper billing and payment fees disproportionately affect low-income consumers, who are less likely to have access to the Internet.”
Reiterating the unfairness of cost burdens, the legislators added: “Furthermore, such policies impose an additional burden on those customers who choose to file their billing statements for later reference, as such customers will be forced to bear the cost of printing electronic billing statements on their home printer.” (Click here to see legislative history).
About Keep Me Posted North America
Keep Me Posted advocates for the right of every consumer in North America to choose, free of charge, how they receive important information – on paper or electronically – from their service providers. KMP is a coalition of consumer groups, charities and businesses who are committed to protecting consumer access to paper-based communications at no extra charge. These consumers include older adults, people with disabilities, low-income households without computers, printers or broadband service, and people in rural areas where unreliable internet access is common.
For more information on how to support KMP or to become a member, visit our website at keepmepostedna.org, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@KeepMePostedNA) and on LinkedIn. Contact us at [email protected] or by phone at 855-896-7433.
 Keep Me Posted North America is a coalition of consumer organizations including Consumer Action, The National Consumers League, The National Grange, the Public Interest Advocacy Center, to name a few.