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Telecoms argue Sprint missed appeal of their $23M verdict

A group of local telephone companies hopes to short-circuit an appeal of their $23-million Virginia judgment based on charges for Internet phone calls.

The local companies claim telecom giant Sprint Communications missed a deadline to file a notice of appeal. Sprint disputes that conclusion. The issue could be resolved by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne ruled last March that Sprint was liable for charges for Voice over Internet Protocol calls through local networks based on agreements it had with those local providers. The judge labeled Sprint’s arguments to the contrary “smoke and mirrors.”

The local networks – all part of telecommunications company CenturyLink Inc. – contended Sprint arbitrarily lowered the rate it would pay for connecting VoIP calls.

Payne entered final judgment against Sprint Dec. 29 in the amount of $23,376,213.76. Anticipating the final order, Sprint asked the court to approve a bond for an appeal that would put a hold on any collection effort by the CenturyLink companies.

Sprint’s “Supersedeas Bond” recited that Sprint “does appeal” from the judgment and would pursue the appeal “without unnecessary delay.”

Nevertheless, the docket indicates Sprint did not file any notice of appeal within the usual 30-day time period. Instead, Sprint asked Payne to consider additional evidence and revisit an earlier ruling in the case.

Payne refused. He found Sprint’s motion was “untimely” and an improper attempt to relitigate an issue that already had been resolved.

The CenturyLink defendants seized on Payne’s “untimely” language in a motion filed Feb. 29. Pointing to a 2001 opinion from the 4th Circuit, the local telecoms argued that an untimely post-trial motion does not defer the time for filing an appeal.

“Sprint would have been well advised to go ahead and file a notice of appeal just in case its pending motion was in fact untimely,” wrote CenturyLink lead counsel Michael J. Lockerby of Washington. “Sprint rolled the proverbial dice and lost,” he said in a brief.

Not so, responded Sprint. The post-judgment motion it filed was not untimely, despite the language used by the judge, Sprint argued. The issue was one for the appeals court to decide, Sprint said.

Now that the appeal has been docketed at the 4th Circuit, both sides agree on that latter point. “We expect we would need to bring it to the 4th Circuit’s attention,” Lockerby said.

The $23 million dollar judgment is not reflected in the VLW Largest Verdicts list for 2011 because it is not a jury verdict.

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