Yes, but it’s likely that you’ll be limited to suing in small claims court. If your dispute is about more than what small claims court can decide, your only option may be to pursue an out-of-court process called arbitration.
Lawsuits against telephone companies are hard to win. Your service contract limits your provider’s liability, contains disclaimers and waivers, imposes time constraints within which you must bring any claims, and requires you to jump through various procedural hurdles.
If you want to take legal action against your phone company, especially arbitration, you may benefit from legal advice from an experienced attorney. consumer protection lawyer or one arbitration lawyer.
Most American adults own a cell phone
The wireless cellular phone industry is big business in the United States In 2019, the wireless cellular phone industry made $187.36 billion. According to the Pew Research Center97% of American adults own a cell phone. Of these, 85% are smartphones (e.g. iPhone, etc.).
Mobile phone service has improved dramatically since the construction of the first mobile phone tower in Japan in the late 1970s. When first introduced in the United States in the early 1980s, the service was spotty at best and calls were often dropped. Only the wealthy could afford to buy a phone and pay for coverage. And the phones themselves were huge – they were called brick phones.
Now a phone fits in your pocket. The service is available almost anywhere you go. And with the growth of 5G, you can not only make calls, but also stream movies and play games over a wireless network. We expect consistent quality service and coverage.
You could have a dispute with your operator
But even today, problems arise. You may not have good coverage. Maybe you are dealing with dropped phone calls. Your supplier may make billing errors. Charge the wrong credit card. Maybe you’re paying for “unlimited data” and your provider engages in data throttling (meaning they dramatically slow speeds after you reach a certain data limit, effectively cutting you off).
Most of these problems are easily and quickly solved. However, a dropped call at the wrong time, like when you try to dial 911, can mean life or death.
In the event of a dispute with your operator, you have a choice. This could include suing them. But before we get to that, let’s start at the top.
You are bound by your service contract
When you subscribed to mobile phone service, you agreed to your provider’s terms of service. These terms formed a contract. You are bound by this contract. And each provider’s service contract includes terms that outline how to resolve any disputes you may have.
FindLaw looked at the contracts of the four (now more like three) major US cell phone providers to see if there were any similarities in how disputes are supposed to be resolved:
Dispute Resolution Steps
FindLaw found that they all had the same general dispute resolution process. Be sure to look at the specific terms of your own contract. And be aware that these terms change from time to time, so you’ll want to read them carefully.
Step One: Call Customer Service
You are therefore in conflict with your supplier. Your first reaction may be to run to the courthouse to file a complaint. But resist that urge. You should first try to find a solution with your provider’s customer service. You can find the number on your provider’s website.
They may have made a simple mistake. Give them a chance to fix it. Even if it’s a bigger issue, they may be willing to work with you. Who knows? You can be satisfied with their solution.
Step Two: Informal Dispute Resolution
But maybe you’re not. The next step is to withdraw your service contract. We have provided the links above. Look at the language under dispute resolution. You’ll see an overview of things to do before you can take legal action.
This plan usually begins with notifying the company in writing of the details of your problem. You then give the company a specific time frame to respond to you. They will examine your complaint and can offer you a solution likely to satisfy you.
Be aware that your contract may require you to give this notice within a specific time frame. Make sure you do. If you don’t, you may not be able to sue.
Step Three: Formal Dispute Resolution
Suppose you are unhappy with what your supplier is willing to do for you. You can then take legal action. But your options are limited by your service contract.
First legal action option: Small Claims Court
Your first option is to sue your supplier in small claims court. Small claims courts offer a relatively inexpensive way to settle all sorts of legal issues, including breach of contract disputes and landlord and tenant disputes. You can handle many small claims disputes without an attorney (and some states don’t allow you to use one in small claims court).
Small claims courts are limited in the size of litigation they can handle under state law. Depending on your state, the amount can be as little as $2,500 (Rhode Island and Kentucky) and up to $25,000 (Delaware and Tennessee).
If your dispute is fairly simple (for example, a billing error) and below the limit amount, small claims court may be a good fit for you. Be aware that if your dispute exceeds the state limit, you will not be able to recover the remainder of the amount owed to you if you go to small claims court. Also note that according to the language of most service contracts, you do not have the right to have your case heard by a jury.
Second legal action option: arbitration
Your second option is to bring what is called arbitration. Arbitration is a dispute resolution process that takes place out of court. You and your mobile operator engage a neutral third party, called “arbitrator,who reviews written submissions, hears evidence, and resolves the dispute for you. You cannot appeal the arbitrator’s decision. Their decision is binding.
There are advantages and disadvantages. Some of the benefits are:
- Arbitration can cost less than litigation
- You may be able to get a faster result
- The arbitration process can be less complicated than a trial
- Arbitrations are generally not public
Some of the disadvantages are:
- Arbitration is getting more expensive (and likely costs more than a case in Small Claims Court)
- Your cell phone provider will almost certainly be represented by a lawyer, so you’ll want one too.
- Referees usually come from a small group of people and may do a lot of business with your service provider (which can lead to bias)
- Since you can’t appeal, you may end up with a decision you think is unfair.
Arbitration clauses in company service contracts differ. A few specify in detail how the arbitration is supposed to take place, a few others say that you follow a federal law, the Federal Arbitration Act, which outlines the process.
Some lawyers like arbitration, some don’t. Legal experts disagree. If you decide to resort to arbitration, you should seriously consider consulting a lawyer experienced in their treatment.
Be aware of the fine print
Whether you choose small claims court or are stuck with forced arbitration, you need to be aware of the fine print of your service agreement. Your supplier wrote it, so you probably won’t be surprised that it goes out of its way to protect the business and contains a lot of legalese.
If you dig into this legalese, you will see that the contract contains many additional restrictions, disclaimers and limitations. For example:
- You are not able to join your claim with those of other people in what is called a class action
- You must submit your claim within a certain time or you lose all right to recovery
- Your provider “waives” any quality of service warranties (which basically means they can give you bad service and you’re stuck with it)
These are just a few of them. Again, you want to be sure to check the specific language of your contract to make sure what limitations apply to your situation.
Consider getting legal advice
If you have a dispute with your cell phone service provider, try to resolve it. A customer service agent may be able to help you. If that doesn’t work, you should carefully review your service contract to see what your next steps are.
If you end up suing, your choices are small claims court or arbitration. A good consumer protection law firm can give you legal advice and help you understand your rights as a consumer so you can decide if legal action is right for you.