Russell man takes on a giant.. and wins

Successfully filing a consumer complaint is difficult – the time and effort it takes to find and file the burden of proof required by the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission is probably better suited for a team of lawyers in downtown Pittsburgh.

It takes commitment, time, dogged determination and patience.

So, how did Ken Eernisse of Russell find himself in his truck a half mile from his home in a church parking lot, talking on his cell phone to a Verizon employee?

“It just became a matter of principle. I wanted a working phone, somebody had to stand up for everybody else,” he said.

Landline telephone service to the Eernessy’s home had repeated phone outages during wet weather conditions, a problem “right from the get-go” since moving there in 1993, he said.

In 2004 he filed an informal complaint against Verizon with the PUC, beginning a nearly eight-year process of hundreds of hours of work, repeated outages, dozens of trips to the local church to get cell phone reception, phone calls to Verizon, scheduled service calls, missed appointments, and eventually a medical emergency in which he had to drive to his neighbor’s home to call 911.

Verizon agreed to make any necessary repairs and the complaint was closed, but the Eernesey’s still had issues with their phone service from 2005 to 2011.

It would rain, they’d loose service for a day or two and when he called Verizon it would take between three and five days for a technician to fix the problem, which by then the lines had dried out and service was back.

The Wiltsie Church parking lot became his office because it was near his home and he could get cell phone service there.

Eernisse doesn’t fault the local Verizon technicians. In fact, he said they were very helpful and understanding. He blames the corporate level at Verizon for lack of staffing to respond to his service issues.

“It was a very frustrating process,” he said. “The problem I was having was that they’d say it would be four days before they’d get out there and look at it. Well, if the sun came out tomorrow my phone would start working again. So a lot of times I never called, I had a lot of outages which I never called, because I figured within a day or two the phone would be back working.”

PUC documents detail 15 outages from 2009 to 2011 that show Verizon either failed to take substantial action within 24 hours, failed to maintain reasonable continuous service, or failed to meet commitment at the Eernisse residence.

The PUC notes in its decision that during June 2011 the Eernisses “effectively had no telephone service for 15 days” during which his son “was seriously ill and needed emergency medical attention.”

The Eernisses had no telephone or cell phone service to call for help.

In December 2011 Eernisse filed another informal complaint against Verizon for unreliable service during wet weather conditions and for Verizon’s slow response time.

As part of the second informal complaint, Eernisse said Verizon offered to give him the phone number for the local Verizon forman, essentially bumping him to the top of the list.

“To me that doesn’t seem fair; I’m line jumping. If somebody else is having problems with their phone I shouldn’t be jumping ahead of them. It makes them wait longer for their repairs; it’s not fair to other customers. I didn’t feel right doing that; it’s just a matter of principle,” he said.

Then he discovered the Public Utility Code that says telephone companies are required to “take substantial action” to repair an out-of-service phone within 24 hours, and if there are medical conditions that could create an emergency condition, the phone company is required to respond within three hours, he said.

“Once I realized that, that’s when I filed the (formal) complaint. It’s like, wait a minute, they’re breaking the law, this is illegal,” he said.

Eernisse said he has talked to other Warren County residents who have similar issues with their phone service and wants them to know there are steps to take to fix the problem.

The first would be filing a informal complaint with the PUC, which he said was pretty easy.

“The PUC doesn’t know Verizon’s not living up to it’s obligations unless people start filing complaints and the informal complaints are easy to file. You just go on the website, basically fill out your name and what your complaint was,” he said.

Eernisse, who says he’s never even been court for jury duty, represented himself in a telephone conference against Verizon’s lawyer who he said claimed to not only understand the PUC regulations but had even helped write them.

“I represented myself in court, did all the filing of everything; I did all that myself. It was a lot of research, a lot of research,” he said, estimating he spent hundreds of hours working to file the formal complaint.

“I get nothing, Verizon got fined, I didn’t get a penny for all my time all my effort; I got nothing. And the way the laws are written it kind of discourages anybody from going to the level I did because there’s nothing in it for them. It just became a matter of principle. I wanted a working phone and somebody had to stand up for everybody else.”

Verizon might have reimbursed them for the outages if he had pushed them for it, but Eernisse said he didn’t want the issue to be about money.

It was about the service, not the dollars.

The PUC agreed with Eernisse and fined Verizon $20,050.

“Viewed in totality, it is clear that Verizon’s efforts in regard to the Complainant’s telephone service fall short of “reasonable service” by any definition of that term. Ten reported outages, some of which lasted for several days, is not reasonable, particularly given the lack of alternative communication services, such as cellular coverage at the Complainant’s residence,” PUC documents say. “Given the history of outages at the Complainant’s service address, Verizon completely failed to render reasonable and continuous service. Verizon knew or should have known that the condition of the lines that served the Complainant’s residence required more substantial attention given the number of trouble reports in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Verizon was also aware that the lines were streched and no longer water tight. There is no evidence that Verizon made any effort to inspect and repair its facilities, but instead waited until an outage was reported and often only made temporary repairs. The area where the Complainant lives is a remote area with limited cellular service, which makes landline telephone service that much more critical. The result of Verizon’s failure to maintain its facilities was that the Complainant did not have telephone service to call for emergency help for his son, which makes this failure very serious with serious consequences, which merits a higher penalty pursuant to the Commission’s guidelines.”

Eernisse said a PUC representative, who did not return a call from the Times Observer, said his case set several legal precedents for the total amount fined and for the amount of the fines per day, most of which were $1,000 a day, the maximum amount allowed.

Since the decision and fine by the PUC, Eernisse says he’s only experienced one outage that Verizon repaired the next morning.

“It was nice to see it resolved, that was the big thing,” Eernisse said about the PUC’s decision. “You don’t know how it’s going to come out. After the trial, I really felt that I won the argument. They didn’t really have a response, the facts were the facts. They had 24 hours, they didn’t respond, over and over and over.”

For it’s part, Verizon argued they didn’t have to maintain perfect service, only reasonable service. Verizon also argued PUC regulations don’t require telephone repairs within 24 hours, only that it has to take some action.

“This was a rare case where Verizon and this customer could not reach a mutually beneficial solution to resolve his issues. However, this case shouldn’t overshadow the fact that, overall, we provide excellent service to millions of our customers and continually strive to meet their expectations each and every time,” a Verizon spokesman said.

“Since 2008, landline telephone PUC customer complaints have dropped by 70 percent, and they continue to decline,” the spokesman said.

According to Verizon, “outcomes like this are very uncommon, given the small number cases that are ever brought before the full commission.”

“Every business across the state has faced situations where a customer’s expectations are not met. While this was an unfortunate case, this proceeding gave us an opportunity to ensure that the processes we have are working well to meet our customers’ needs.

“We are continuously improving customer service at Verizon, by both improving processes and investing in hundreds of hours of training, as we try to stay ahead of our competition to be the company our customers can rely on for their communications needs.”