News

Palo Alto settles suit, agrees to issue refunds to phone customers

City required to establish fund, pay attorney fees

Palo Alto taxpayers are expected to receive $1.275 million in refunds under a settlement agreement reached between the city of Palo Alto and JND Legal Administration over a 2014 lawsuit. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

Palo Alto will have to spend $1.275 million on refunds to phone customers and attorneys fees as part of a settlement that the city has reached with a resident who filed a lawsuit almost six years ago.

At issue is the utility users tax, which Palo Alto first began collecting in 1987 and moved to modernize seven years ago, when voters approved Measure C. In her lawsuit, Eileen Staats argued that prior to the 2014 amendment, the city had been illegally collecting taxes for telephone services that are exempt from the federal excise tax. Staats then filed a class-action lawsuit that sought a refund to Palo Alto taxpayers of all taxes that the city had collected between Aug. 1, 2006, and December 2014.

The suit advanced in 2018, when the Santa Clara County Superior Court supported the plaintiffs' request and granted them class certification. The court also supported in 2019 a motion from the city to limit any tax recovery to the period between Dec. 24, 2013, and Dec. 18, 2014, based on time limitations in the Government Claims Act.

The court did not, however, issue any rulings as to whether the tax was legally collected. Rather, the two sides reached a settlement agreement that requires the city to set aside $1.275 million for a "settlement fund" that would pay for refunds, attorney's fees and a $10,000 incentive payment to Staats for serving as class representative.

JND Legal Administration, the firm representing the plaintiffs, has indicated that it will seek $197,000 in attorney fees from the settlement fund, though the settlement specifies that the amount designated for fees cannot exceed $475,000. The firm noted in its announcement that if any balance remains in the settlement fund after all the fees and refunds are made, the balance will be returned to the city.

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"To avoid the expense and burden of further litigation," the settlement states, the parties have agreed to settle "all known and unknown claims, disputes, and causes of action between them" arising from Staats' lawsuit.

If the Superior Court approves the terms of the settlement on Sept. 2 as expected, the process of issuing the refunds will proceed over the coming months, as the plaintiffs' attorney issues notices to customers who may be eligible for refunds. Residents and businesses that paid the utility tax between Dec. 24, 2013, and Dec. 18, 2014, will have until Aug. 30, 2021, to submit their claim form and supporting documentation, according to an announcement published by JND (the firm also created the site utilityuserstax.com with more information about the settlement).

The settlement stipulates that eligible customers will receive refunds of $8.50 per telephone line for the first five telephone lines; $7.50 per line for the next five phone lines; and $6.50 per line for the all remaining phone lines.

The Staats lawsuit is one of two class action suits that Palo Alto is now facing relating to its financial practices. Last year, the Superior Court ordered the city to issue $12 million in refunds to gas customers following a class-action lawsuit initiated by resident Miriam Green, who challenged the city's practice of transferring money from utilities to its general fund. The final judgment and order in that case is expected later in the summer, at which point both sides will have a chance to file an appeal.

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Palo Alto settles suit, agrees to issue refunds to phone customers

City required to establish fund, pay attorney fees

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Mon, May 3, 2021, 4:02 pm

Palo Alto will have to spend $1.275 million on refunds to phone customers and attorneys fees as part of a settlement that the city has reached with a resident who filed a lawsuit almost six years ago.

At issue is the utility users tax, which Palo Alto first began collecting in 1987 and moved to modernize seven years ago, when voters approved Measure C. In her lawsuit, Eileen Staats argued that prior to the 2014 amendment, the city had been illegally collecting taxes for telephone services that are exempt from the federal excise tax. Staats then filed a class-action lawsuit that sought a refund to Palo Alto taxpayers of all taxes that the city had collected between Aug. 1, 2006, and December 2014.

The suit advanced in 2018, when the Santa Clara County Superior Court supported the plaintiffs' request and granted them class certification. The court also supported in 2019 a motion from the city to limit any tax recovery to the period between Dec. 24, 2013, and Dec. 18, 2014, based on time limitations in the Government Claims Act.

The court did not, however, issue any rulings as to whether the tax was legally collected. Rather, the two sides reached a settlement agreement that requires the city to set aside $1.275 million for a "settlement fund" that would pay for refunds, attorney's fees and a $10,000 incentive payment to Staats for serving as class representative.

JND Legal Administration, the firm representing the plaintiffs, has indicated that it will seek $197,000 in attorney fees from the settlement fund, though the settlement specifies that the amount designated for fees cannot exceed $475,000. The firm noted in its announcement that if any balance remains in the settlement fund after all the fees and refunds are made, the balance will be returned to the city.

"To avoid the expense and burden of further litigation," the settlement states, the parties have agreed to settle "all known and unknown claims, disputes, and causes of action between them" arising from Staats' lawsuit.

If the Superior Court approves the terms of the settlement on Sept. 2 as expected, the process of issuing the refunds will proceed over the coming months, as the plaintiffs' attorney issues notices to customers who may be eligible for refunds. Residents and businesses that paid the utility tax between Dec. 24, 2013, and Dec. 18, 2014, will have until Aug. 30, 2021, to submit their claim form and supporting documentation, according to an announcement published by JND (the firm also created the site utilityuserstax.com with more information about the settlement).

The settlement stipulates that eligible customers will receive refunds of $8.50 per telephone line for the first five telephone lines; $7.50 per line for the next five phone lines; and $6.50 per line for the all remaining phone lines.

The Staats lawsuit is one of two class action suits that Palo Alto is now facing relating to its financial practices. Last year, the Superior Court ordered the city to issue $12 million in refunds to gas customers following a class-action lawsuit initiated by resident Miriam Green, who challenged the city's practice of transferring money from utilities to its general fund. The final judgment and order in that case is expected later in the summer, at which point both sides will have a chance to file an appeal.

Comments

Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 3, 2021 at 5:51 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on May 3, 2021 at 5:51 pm

Great. One down and the bigger one, the $12,000,000 class-action judgment against Palo Alto Utilites to go. I'm appalled that PA taxpayers are paying for the city to appeal paying us what's owed us in the Miriam Green class action suit.

By the way, have the stopped their annual practice of "overcharging" us $20,000,000 to fund the General Fund while cutting services to us? If not, why not.


Anonymous
Registered user
Fairmeadow
on May 4, 2021 at 11:05 am
Anonymous, Fairmeadow
Registered user
on May 4, 2021 at 11:05 am

So, some busybody filed a class action lawsuit that causes the city to pay out a big chunk of money when it needs to cut services. Are the residents of the city going to become rich from the settlement? Hardly. I doubt each resident will get more than $20 (= $1.275M / 66K). Only the plaintiff's lawyers will get a significant payout So what is the point of this lawsuit?


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 4, 2021 at 11:32 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on May 4, 2021 at 11:32 am

The point of this and the other bigger lawsuit is to deter the city from continuing to rip us off. $20,000,000 in "overcharges" each and every year for the last several years adds up to real money -- especially when CPAU can't even provide decent outreach during outages, doesn't train its workers questioning water bills to refer customers to the county's excellent Water Audit program, etc. etc.

Unfortunately, lawsuits and the treat of lawsuits seem to be the only way to get the City Manager and City Attorney to pay attention. Would it were otherwise.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 4, 2021 at 11:36 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 4, 2021 at 11:36 am

Here we go.

Now we will lose libraries, Childrens Theater, various other things, but we will all receive $20. I am pleased this is being sorted but the timing on this has to be taken into account.

I would rather not get the $20 and keep the youth services, the police and the things that I pay my taxes for.


Duveneck neighbor
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 4, 2021 at 11:36 am
Duveneck neighbor, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on May 4, 2021 at 11:36 am

CPA and CPAU engage in a number of what to my mind are subterfuges, hidden from public view or care, in order to manage the severe problems associated with the retirement benefits promised to employees long ago. The actions taken by City management, and approved by the Council unfortunately, included both shedding City costs, and increasing City revenues, without voter oversight. I refer, particularly, to the long-standing practice by City Managers, to move City employees over to the CPAU ledger, and then taking advantage of the allowances per State law, for City-owned utilities to recover a 10% 'return on investment' from utility operations. So, by sliding employees over to the CPAU column from the General Fund column, the City sheds costs, compels ratepayers to pay, without input or review, for the same employee service... and receive an extra 10%, besides.

We never deal, up front and transparently, with the structural deficits from underfunded pension and retirement benefit pools.

To the point of this article, then: $8.50 is nothing compared to what we actually paid over the last 25 years for this utility tax. The tort attorneys, here, were just going for a quick payday, and they'll take over 50% of the minimal funds at issue here -- which are far less than what the City *should* pay out/back.

But bottom line, neither City staff, nor present Council, will take this settlement as a wake-up call to behave differently. And, we taxpayers and ratepayers, pay for that indifference, each and every day. When will it stop?


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 4, 2021 at 12:20 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on May 4, 2021 at 12:20 pm

"Now we will lose libraries, Childrens Theater, various other things, but we will all receive $20. I am pleased this is being sorted but the timing on this has to be taken into account."

The suits have been dragging on since 2014; they didn't just suddenly appear.

Remember we're on Palo Alto Time where it takes almost a decade to change traffic light timing (Town & Country & Paly) and where the city JUST authorized a $4,500,000 "short-term" redesign of the Alma/Churchill intersection which includes changing the traffic light timing -- something that's been requested for years -- rather than simply changing the traffic light timing since the intersection will have to be changed in a few years anyway.



Anonymous
Registered user
Green Acres
on May 4, 2021 at 9:43 pm
Anonymous, Green Acres
Registered user
on May 4, 2021 at 9:43 pm

Got the letter in the mail about the settlement today. It asks for DOCUMENTATION that we had a Palo Alto phone line in the late 2013/early 2014 time frame. Who in their right mind keeps non-tax-deductible private phone bills which are that old? Plaintiffs counsel knew enough about us to mail us about it, so they already know we are part of the class. Why do we have to prove or provide something that they already know--especially for a measly $8.50 per phone line? This so-called settlement is a complete joke.


Rajiv
Registered user
Greendell/Walnut Grove
on May 5, 2021 at 9:46 am
Rajiv, Greendell/Walnut Grove
Registered user
on May 5, 2021 at 9:46 am

$8.50/line? Palo Alto can keep my portion of the settlement. Thanks to this article, at least I know that not filling out the document will result in more for the city instead of the filing attorneys.


Resident
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 5, 2021 at 3:22 pm
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 5, 2021 at 3:22 pm

@online is in dreamland. Yes, @online, the $1.275 million would have gone the General Fund, which pays for the Children’s Theater, the Art Center, the Junior Museum and Zoo, Paramedics, Youth Services, and so on. @online wants no taxes and lots of services. Well, don’t we all.

According to the other paper in town, the proceeds are:

• $8.50 to each household, per phone line
• $10,000 to Ms Staats
• $400,000 to lawyers

Thanks for your service Ms Staats, but personally I’d have kept a couple libraries open instead of giving $400,000 to lawyers.


rsmithjr
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 5, 2021 at 8:34 pm
rsmithjr, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on May 5, 2021 at 8:34 pm

The city should follow the rules and set the good example.

If the rules do not provide enough money for the city to run properly, there are plenty of ways to redress this.

My guess is that this situation was something of a bureaucratic error rather than being direct malfeasance.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 6, 2021 at 10:05 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on May 6, 2021 at 10:05 am

"My guess is that this situation was something of a bureaucratic error rather than being direct malfeasance."

Then shouldn't the PA bureaucracy finally stop CPAU from overcharging us $20,000,000 each and every year?


lina crane
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 10, 2021 at 9:07 pm
lina crane, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on May 10, 2021 at 9:07 pm

To:
Cc:
Bcc:
Date: Mon, 10 May 2021 21:03:07 -0700
Subject: utilities users tax
The form at the bottom states"that between December 24, 2013 and
December 18, 2014,
I purchased ____separate qualifying telephone lines...."

This makes no sense, as I didn't PURCHASE any lines, but had the service.
Confused,
Lina F Crane


PA Homeless Advocate
Registered user
Mountain View
on May 11, 2021 at 7:56 am
PA Homeless Advocate, Mountain View
Registered user
on May 11, 2021 at 7:56 am

A suggestion...

Rather than debate about litigation attorneys getting richer, the mere pittance of receiving $8.50 per line as part of the settlement, and the resultant cut-backs in city services, why not contribute your $8.50 towards a community service you feel strongly about?

Given the number of PA households destined to receive this rebate, the total figure comes to a sizable amount of money.

Or consider donating the proceeds towards creating a homeless community for those less fortunate.

While $8.50 is chump change to the average Palo Alto resident, it buys a meal and a cup of coffee for someone who is truly destitute.

The arrogance and petty complaining of well-to-do citizens is not only disturbing but shallow as well.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 11, 2021 at 9:14 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on May 11, 2021 at 9:14 am

How about the arrogance of the the City and Palo Alto Utilities?

Remember this isn't the only class-action lawsuit against them; there's also the $12,000,000 court-ordered legal settlement for overcharging which is the city city may still be wasting our money to appeal.

This is the supposed justification for the draconian "community services" cuts, ignoring the fact that they still haven't imposed a business tax and that they're proposing new fees for wastewater that are higher for residents than for commercial customers.


Lorne Gerhardt
Registered user
another community
on May 11, 2021 at 9:45 am
Lorne Gerhardt, another community
Registered user
on May 11, 2021 at 9:45 am

Given these past resident grievances with the City of Palo Alto's municipal services, can't anything be done to remedy them?

A practical resolution might involve a PACC investigation of fiscal mismanagement and the dismissal of the responsible administrative parties.

PA residents need to speak up or elect different civic leaders who represent their best interests.

In the absence of initiating constructive change, further griping will amount to a continuance of the status quo.

Palo Alto is a reasonably intelligent community and it does not take a rocket scientist to effectively resolve these pressing and ongoing concerns.


Ethel Steinman
Registered user
Professorville
on May 11, 2021 at 11:11 am
Ethel Steinman, Professorville
Registered user
on May 11, 2021 at 11:11 am

> the dismissal of the responsible administrative parties.

These upper-tier 'administrative parties' are firmly embedded on the city payroll and along with their bloated CalPers benefits, aren't going anywhere.

Besides, the PACC does not have the courage or wherewithal to fire them.


Andrew Clark
Registered user
Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on May 11, 2021 at 12:45 pm
Andrew Clark, Leland Manor/Garland Drive
Registered user
on May 11, 2021 at 12:45 pm

$1.25M is a drop in the bucket given today's inflation and overpriced housing in Palo Alto. You cannot even but a fixer-upper in PA for that price.

So take your $8.50 rebate and go to Starbucks.

Or donate it to a worthy cause.


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