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Sprint Communications Company, L.P v. Native American Telecom

February 22, 2012

SPRINT COMMUNICATIONS COMPANY, L.P., PLAINTIFF,
v.
NATIVE AMERICAN TELECOM, LLC, AND CROW CREEK SIOUX TRIBAL COURT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Karen E. Schreier Chief Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Defendant, Native American Telecom, LLC (NAT), moves to stay this case pending action by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on issues relevant to this case. Docket 121. On November 28, 2011, the FCC issued a final rule concerning the services and technology at issue in this case. Connect America Fund; A National Broadband Plan for Our Future; Establishing Just and Reasonable Rates for Local Exchange Carriers, 76 Fed. Reg. 73830, 2011 WL 5909863 (Nov. 29, 2011) (to be codified at 47 C.F.R. pts. 0, 1, 20, 36, 51, 54, 61, 64, and 69) (final rule). After the court ordered further briefing on what impact, if any, the final rule has on this case, NAT represented to the court that its motion can be denied and that the court can issue a ruling on the case. Docket 128, 131.

Plaintiff, Sprint Communications Company, L.P., also moves to stay and for a referral of certain issues to the FCC. Docket 124. Sprint does not believe that the final rule has any impact on this case and, thus, urges the court to determine the merits of the motions. Docket 129. Sprint also moves to strike or in the alternative disregard certain affidavits and evidence submitted by NAT. Docket 136.

NAT's motion to stay is denied as moot, Sprint's motion to stay is granted, and the court will refer three issues to the FCC for resolution. Sprint's motion to strike is denied without prejudice.

BACKGROUND

I. History of the Present Case*fn1

Sprint provides nationwide long-distance telephone services and is known under the telecommunications regulatory framework as an interexchange carrier (IXC). Sprint delivers long-distance calls to a local exchange carrier (LEC) for termination to end-users. Under the FCC's current regulatory framework, Sprint pays the LEC a terminating access charge based on the LEC's interstate access tariff, which is filed with the FCC.

NAT is an LEC. NAT's interstate tariff number one, filed with the FCC, became effective on September 15, 2009. NAT's second interstate tariff became effective on November 30, 2010, and canceled and replaced NAT's tariff number one. NAT revised its tariff number two, and the revisions became effective on June 26, 2011.

NAT also operates a free conference calling system (used for conference calling, chat-lines, and similar services) in connection with Free Conferencing Corporation, which is owned by WideVoice. NAT has a conference call bridge located on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. A party using NAT's services does not pay NAT for the conference call but rather is assessed normal charges by the party's telecommunications provider. NAT then bills the telecommunications provider an access fee as defined in its interstate tariff. NAT's access charges billed to Sprint for conference calls are at issue here. NAT provides the free conference calling services via Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology. See Docket 14-1 at 4 ("Through the use of advanced antenna and radio technology with OFDA/OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing), NAT delivers wireless IP (Internet Protocol) voice and data communications.").

After paying two of NAT's bills for charges connected to conference calls, Sprint ceased paying NAT's terminating access tariffs because Sprint believed that NAT was involved in a traffic-pumping scheme, otherwise known as access stimulation, to generate traffic from free conference calls and chat services.

Sprint filed suit against NAT alleging a breach of the Federal Communications Act (FCA) and a state-law unjust enrichment claim. Docket 1.

Sprint also sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the Crow Creek Sioux Tribal Court and its-then Chief Judge, Theresa Maule. The court granted a motion by Sprint to enjoin the Crow Creek Sioux Tribal Court from hearing this matter. Docket 62. NAT then asserted counterclaims against Sprint alleging a breach of contract and a collection action pursuant to its tariffs, a breach of implied contract resulting from a violation of its tariffs, and a quantum meruit/unjust enrichment claim. NAT also seeks declaratory relief. Docket 99.

On January 12, 2011, NAT moved for a preliminary injunction to enjoin Sprint from withholding any interstate switched access charges that NAT has billed to Sprint since March 1, 2010, and to enjoin Sprint from withholding access charges in the future. Docket 67. The court denied NAT's preliminary injunction motion. Docket 118.

II. Related Cases

This case is one of a number of cases pending in this court and in other courts involving a dispute between an LEC and an IXC regarding access charges associated with traffic delivered to free calling providers. In each of these cases, an LEC claims that an IXC has wrongfully refused to pay terminating access charges for services performed pursuant to the LEC's interstate tariffs and requests compensation under breach of contract, breach of implied contract, and/or unjust enrichment theories. In each case, the IXC claims that the services provided were not covered by the applicable tariff because the LEC did not terminate the calls and the free calling providers were not end users within the meaning of the tariffs. Many of the IXCs also claim that the applicable LEC engaged in unlawful traffic pumping.

The following cases are pending in the District of South Dakota, some of which have been stayed pending referral of specific issues to the FCC Northern Valley v. Qwest, Civ. 11-4052-KES Northern Valley v. Sprint, Civ. 11-4053-KES Northern Valley Communications L.L.C. v. Qwest Stayed Communications Co., Civ. 09-1004-CBK Splitrock Properties, Inc. v. Sprint Communications Co., Stayed Civ. 09-4075-KES Northern Valley Communications, LLC v. Sprint Stayed Communications Co., Civ. 08-1003-KES Splitrock Properties, Inc. v. Qwest Communications Stayed Corp., No. 08-4172-KES Sancom, Inc. v. AT & T Corp., Civ. 08-4211-KES Stayed Northern Valley Communications, LLC v. MCI Stayed Communications Services, Inc. d/b/a Verizon Business Services, Civ. 07-1016-KES*fn2 Sancom, Inc. v. Sprint Communications Co., Civ. Stayed 07-4107-KES Sancom, Inc. v. Qwest Communications Co., Civ. Stayed 07-4147-KES.

Moreover, the court is aware of similar cases pending in other jurisdictions, many of which have been stayed pending referral of specific issues to the FCC. See, e.g., Qwest Commc'ns Co. v. Tekstar Commc'ns, Inc., No. 10-490, 2010 WL 2772442 (D. Minn. July 12, 2010); Tekstar Commc'ns, Inc. v. Sprint Commc'ns Co., No. 08-1130, 2009 WL 2155930 (D. Minn. July 14, 2009); All. Am. Tel. Co. v. AT&T, Inc., No. 07-861, 2010 WL 7526933 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 19, 2010); see also Bluegrass Tel. Co. v. Qwest Commc'ns Co., No. 4:09-CV-70-M, 2010 WL 1257727 (W.D. Ky. Mar. 26, 2010) (staying case pending resolution of referrals in District of South Dakota, District of Minnesota, and Southern District of New York cases). But see N. Cnty. Commc'ns Corp. v. Verizon Global Networks, Inc., 685 F. Supp. 2d 1112, 1117 (S.D. Cal. 2010) (denying motion to refer Verizon's counterclaims pursuant to primary jurisdiction doctrine).

III. Relevant FCC History

The FCC not only has multiple similar actions pending before it but also has taken various administrative actions concerning the services and technology at issue in this case. The Farmers line of cases is particularly pertinent to this action.

In Farmers,Farmers & Mutual Telephone Company, an LEC, and Qwest Communications Corporation, an IXC, disputed whether Qwest had to pay Farmers' billed access charges for types of services similar to those at issue here. Qwest Commc'ns Corp. v. Farmers & Merchants Mut. Tel. Co., 22 FCC Rcd. 17973 (2007), 2007 WL 2872754 (Farmers I). Initially, the FCC, in addressing whether a free conferencing calling company is an end user for purposes of Farmers' tariff and, if not, whether Farmers can recover access charges from Qwest, ruled in favor of Farmers. Id. at 17986-88. The FCC later granted partial reconsideration based on Qwest's assertions that Farmers engaged in fraud and misrepresentations. Qwest Commc'ns Corp. v. Farmers & Merchants Mut. Tel. Co., 23 FCC Rcd. 1615 (2008), 2008 WL 246393; see also Sancom, Inc. v. AT&T Corp., 696 F. Supp. 2d 1030, 1034-35 (D.S.D. 2010) (discussing the Farmers line of cases in detail).

In Qwest Communications Corporation v. Farmers & Merchants Mutual. Telephone Company, 24 FCC Rcd. 14801, 14812-13 (2009), 2009 WL 4073944 (Farmers II), the FCC found that the conference calling companies did not subscribe to the services offered under Farmers' tariff. Because the conference calling companies were neither "customers" nor "end users" within the meaning of Farmers' tariff, Farmers was not entitled to charge Qwest switched access charges. Id. Thus, the FCC found that Farmers' practice of charging Qwest access charges for the traffic from the conference calling companies was unjust and unreasonable in violation of 47 U.S.C. ยง 201(b). Id. at 14812-13. The FCC, however, declined to rule that Farmers was "precluded from receiving any compensation at all for the services it has provided to Qwest." Id. at 14812 n.96 (citation omitted). The FCC ...


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