Walton v. NYSDOCS Historic Case

At a Glance

Current Status 

The case was ultimately won through advocacy rather than the courts: the governor ended the kickback, and the legislature passed a law outlawing future commission charges and ensuring reasonable rates for New York State prisoners and their families.

 

 

 

Date Filed: 

February 25, 2004

Co-Counsel 

Community Service Society

Client 

Ivy Walton, Joann Harris, Ramona Austin, the New York State Defenders Association, and the Office of the Appellate Defender

Case Description 

Walton v. NYSDOCS was a class action lawsuit brought against the New York State Department of Correctional Services (NYSDOCS). It accused NYSDOCS and the long distance provider MCI of charging exorbitant telephone rates that constituted a financial burden on the families, friends, and attorneys of prisoners. The suit claimed that the phone rates violated plaintiffs’ and class members’ due process and equal protection rights as well as their rights to freedom of speech and association under the New York State Constitution.

Between the 1980s and 2007, families of prisoners in New York had no choice but to pay phone rates as much as 630 percent higher than normal consumer rates to speak with their loved ones. The high rates were the result of a monopoly contract between DOCS and MCI, through which DOCS received a kickback of 57.5 percent of MCI’s profits from collect calls from New York State prisons. The financial burden imposed by the State on the families of prisoners was a significant hardship and directly undermined the correctional system’s goal of maintaining family and community ties to increase the odds of successful re-entry into society upon release from prison.

Lead plaintiff Ivey Walton was a disabled, senior-citizen living on a fixed income whose son and nephew were incarcerated at the Clinton facility in Dannemora, NY, more than 350 miles away from her Brooklyn home. The exorbitant telephone costs imposed by the State’s unlawful commission charges made it extremely difficult for Ms. Walton to maintain her connection with her son and nephew.

In January 2007, after years of advocacy by CCR and family members, Governor Eliot Spitzer announced that New York State would cease to demand the 57.5 percent kickback, thus reducing the telephone rates by more than half, and the legislature passed a bill that expressly prohibits commission charges and ensures reasonable rates for New York State prisoners and their families. The Walton case and the grassroots campaign around it connect to CCR's long history of fighting corporate and state abuses and championing the rights of prisoners.

Learn more about the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice.

 

 

 

 

Case Timeline

November 23, 2009
New York Court of Appeals affirms lower courts' decisions
November 23, 2009
New York Court of Appeals affirms lower courts' decisions

The high court rules against CCR 6-1. In the majority ruling, Judge Graffeo writes that the "constitutional challenges...were lacking in merit," although he adds that the opinion "should not be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the former DOCS policy." In dissent, Judge Smith quotes Arsberry v. Illinois, and argues that the State is "exploiting its monopoly of the inmate market."

October 13, 2009
New York State Court of Appeals hears oral argument on dismissal of case
October 13, 2009
New York State Court of Appeals hears oral argument on dismissal of case
May 27, 2009
CCR appeals to New York Court of Appeals
May 27, 2009
CCR appeals to New York Court of Appeals
December 18, 2008
Appellate Division, Third Department, dismisses case
December 18, 2008
Appellate Division, Third Department, dismisses case

The Appellate Division, Third Department, dismisses Walton for the second time. This time, the appellate division holds that each of the constitutional claims should be dismissed on the law. The court dismisses the unlawful tax claims by comparing the tax to a legitimate business expense, similar to the access fees demanded of payphone companies by property owners. In analyzing the First Amendment claim, the court assumed, without deciding, that prisoners have some right to reasonable phone access, but that we stated no violation as we did not allege that the fees completely bar phone communication. They dismiss the takings and equal protection claim out of hand.

March 31, 2008
CCR appeals district court’s second dismissal of case to Appellate Division
March 31, 2008
CCR appeals district court’s second dismissal of case to Appellate Division
On September 8, 2008, CCR Senior Attorney Darius Charney argues the appeal, claiming that plaintiffs' constitutional rights were violated and they deserve monetary compensation for the illegal tax paid over ten years that amounted to $225 million.
December 14, 2007
On remand court affirms earlier dismissal
December 14, 2007
On remand court affirms earlier dismissal
April 26, 2007
CCR files brief in opposition to DOCS supplemental motion to dismiss
April 26, 2007
CCR files brief in opposition to DOCS supplemental motion to dismiss
April 10, 2007
DOCS files supplemental motion in district court seeking to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims again
April 10, 2007
DOCS files supplemental motion in district court seeking to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims again
DOCS argues that CCR's constitutional claims are inadequate.
February 20, 2007

Court reverses lower courts’ dismissals and reinstates CCR's constitutional claims

February 20, 2007

Court reverses lower courts’ dismissals and reinstates CCR's constitutional claims

The court reverses the dismissal of plaintiffs' claims, but upholds the dismissal of MCI from the case. The court remands the case back to the Supreme Court to rule on whether the plaintiffs' constitutional claims state a cause of action.
January 9, 2007

Court hears oral argument on appellate briefs

January 9, 2007

Court hears oral argument on appellate briefs

CCR’s lead attorney in the case, Rachel Meeropol, argues before the Court of Appeals that the lower courts applied the wrong statute of limitations and incorrectly determined when that statute began to run.
January 8, 2007
On eve of oral argument New York State announces reduction in rates for inmate calls
January 8, 2007
On eve of oral argument New York State announces reduction in rates for inmate calls
After years of advocacy by CCR and family members, Governor Eliot Spitzer announces that New York State will cease to demand the 57.5 percent kickback, thus reducing the telephone rates by more than half. The announcement is followed by passage of state legislation that prohibits commission charges and ensures reasonable rates for New York State prisoners and their families.
November 30, 2006
Supporters file amicus briefs
November 30, 2006
Supporters file amicus briefs
Over 50 individuals, 15 elected officials, and 38 organizations file amicus briefs with the New York Court of Appeals in support of CCR’s position.
November 8, 2006
MCI and DOCS file briefs in opposition to CCR's appeal brief
November 8, 2006
MCI and DOCS file briefs in opposition to CCR's appeal brief
September 18, 2006

CCR files appeal brief in New York Court of Appeals

September 18, 2006

CCR files appeal brief in New York Court of Appeals

July 5, 2006
New York State Court of Appeals grants CCR's motion for leave to appeal
July 5, 2006
New York State Court of Appeals grants CCR's motion for leave to appeal
May 4, 2006

CCR seeks leave from the Court of Appeals to appeal the Third Department’s dismissal of the case

May 4, 2006

CCR seeks leave from the Court of Appeals to appeal the Third Department’s dismissal of the case

The Legal Aid Society, the Center for Law and Social Justice of Medgar Evers College, and Bronx Defenders file an amicus brief in support of CCR's’ motion for leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals, asking the high court to hear the case due to the importance of the constitutional issues raised.

April 5, 2006
CCR's motion for leave to appeal to highest court denied
April 5, 2006
CCR's motion for leave to appeal to highest court denied
February 24, 2006

CCR files for leave to appeal to New York's highest court

February 24, 2006

CCR files for leave to appeal to New York's highest court

CCR serves a motion to the Appellate Division for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals (New York’s highest court). More than a brief on the merits of the case, a “leave to appeal” is an opportunity for counsel to convince the court that their case is worthy of the court's time and scarce judicial resources.
January 19, 2006

Appellate Division affirms lower court's decision to dismiss case

January 19, 2006

Appellate Division affirms lower court's decision to dismiss case

The appellate court affirms the lower court’s decision to dismiss the case on statute of limitation grounds.
November 21, 2005
Court hears oral argument on whether to reverse lower court decision to dismiss case
November 21, 2005
Court hears oral argument on whether to reverse lower court decision to dismiss case
CCR Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol argues the case before the appellate court.
October 22, 2005
CCR files replies to MCI and DOCS' appellate briefs
October 22, 2005
CCR files replies to MCI and DOCS' appellate briefs
October 12, 2005

MCI and DOCS urge court to affirm dismissal

October 12, 2005

MCI and DOCS urge court to affirm dismissal

August 15, 2005

CCR appeals dismissal of case

August 15, 2005

CCR appeals dismissal of case

CCR appeals to the Appellate Division, Third Department, to reverse the New York Supreme Court's order granting MCI and DOCS' motions to dismiss. CCR argues that the court applied the wrong statute of limitations to the challenge, that their claim did not accrue until the Public Service commission approved the latest telephone rates, and that the case was timely due to MCI and DOCS' continuing violation of their rights.
October 8, 2004

Court grants MCI and DOCS motions to dismiss 

October 8, 2004

Court grants MCI and DOCS motions to dismiss 

Judge Ceresia grants the defendants’ motions to dismiss on statute of limitations grounds, dismissing the case in its entirety. The court holds that the case should have been filed within four months of the last contract between DOCS and MCI, which was signed in 2001.
June 25, 2004

New York Supreme Court hears oral argument on motions to dismiss

June 25, 2004

New York Supreme Court hears oral argument on motions to dismiss

CCR Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol argues against dismissal before Judge George Ceresia at the New York State Supreme Court in Albany.
June 24, 2004
MCI and DOCS file reply briefs in support of their motions to dismiss
June 24, 2004
MCI and DOCS file reply briefs in support of their motions to dismiss
June 17, 2004
CCR files motion in opposition to MCI and DOCS motions to dismiss
June 17, 2004
CCR files motion in opposition to MCI and DOCS motions to dismiss
May 7, 2004
MCI and DOCS move to dismiss the case
May 7, 2004
MCI and DOCS move to dismiss the case
MCI and DOCS move to have the case dismissed on statute of limitations and failure to state a claim grounds.
February 25, 2004

CCR files complaint against MCI and DOCS in the Supreme Court of New York, Albany County

February 25, 2004

CCR files complaint against MCI and DOCS in the Supreme Court of New York, Albany County

The suit claims that the phone rates violate plaintiffs’ and class members’ due process and equal protection rights as well as their rights to freedom of speech and association under the New York State Constitution.