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ISP founder gets breather

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals has given new life to a lawsuit a small-scale Internet service provider filed against competitor Bell Atlantic of Maryland Inc. that accuses the telecommunications titan of attempting to kill his business.Although the appeals court held that the trial judge had not erred when he dismissed the lawsuit based on earlier law, it cited new law in sending the case back to the trial court with directions to stay all proceedings until Intercom Systems Corp. has exhausted its administrative remedies before the Public Service Commission.“In light of the decision of the Court of Appeals in Zappone v. Liberty Life, we now conclude that the remedy provided by the act is primary and not exclusive,” wrote Judge Peter B. Krauser for the court. “Accordingly, we shall reverse the judgment of the circuit court and, to the extent that our decision in Bits ‘N’ Bytes [v. C&P Telephone] is inconsistent with this opinion, we overrule that decision.”Intercom attorney Constance A. Camus said for now she and her client, Intercom CEO Mark S. Ballard, 37, of Clinton, are savoring the moment, knowing full well that they are a long way from finished with this case.“It’s big because the utilities companies have successfully kept cases like this at the administrative level prior to this, and now they’re open to compensatory and punitive damages in a court of law,” she said. “What [the Court of Special Appeals] has done is change with the times,” Camus said. “What this opinion does is take Zappone and apply it to the utilities.”Camus, who said this was her first appellate argument, said the challenge has been formidable.“It really is a David-and-Goliath story,” she said. “It was me as a solo practitioner against Hogan & Hartson — and [Intercom] against Bell Atlantic.“Here’s a guy who’s an invalid, who was hit by a taxi cab, who thought that instead of just getting a disability check, he would see what he could do for himself,” Camus said. “He wanted to start a flat rate Internet company from his home in the early 1990s, and Bell Atlantic did everything they did to try to prevent this.”Ballard insists that if there is going to be true competition on the Internet, there have got to be better and more direct ways for people to seek legal recourse.“They’re trying their best to keep the little guys like me out,” Ballard said. “What’s really a tragedy here is that I had this really great business plan to have an Internet service provider and employ disabled people and I was prevented from doing this.”People “should have the right to seek recourse and justice against any company, no matter what their name is,” Ballard said. “We need to keep our civil right to recourse sacred. This decision restores that right. It’s a wonderful decision. “It’s cost me $100,000 in legal fees for the last three years and will probably cost me another $100,000 this year, but we’ll make it,” Ballard said. “We’ll get there.” Bell Atlantic’s lawyers could not be reached for comment. <table width=”100%” border=”0″ cellspacing=”0″ cellpadding=”0″

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case: Intercom Systems Corp. v. Bell Atlantic of Maryland Inc. CSA No. 154, Sept. Term 1998. Reported. Opinion by Krauser, J. Filed Dec. 22, 2000.Issue: Did a trial court err in dismissing a lawsuit for tortious interference, negligence and breach of contract when it ruled that administrative remedies provided by the Public Utilities Companies Article of the Maryland Code provide an exclusive remedy for such claims before the Public Utility Commission?Holding: No; however, in light of what the Court of Appeals has since held in Zappone v. Liberty Life, the remedy provided by the article is primary, creating a comprehensive but not an exclusive system for resolving complaints against public utility companies. Reversed and remanded to the trial court with directions to stay all proceedings until appellant has exhausted its administrative remedies before the Public Service Commission. Counsel: Constance A. Camus for appellant; Karen A. Hardwick for appellee.RecordFax: 0-0606-21(19 pages)