Clinic Students Pursue Protections for Oregon Consumers

Willamette University Clinical Law Program students worked for more than two years to help investigate the trade practices of U.S. Cellular Corp., a provider of wireless cellular phones and service headquartered in Illinois, and a subsidiary based in Medford, Ore. Their efforts paid off in late May, when an assurance of voluntary compliance (AVC) was filed by Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Working in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ), Willamette law students found that U.S. Cellular advertisements promised consumers “free” cellular phones without properly disclosing the prerequisite terms necessary, including the fact that consumers must subscribe to certain and sometimes ancillary services and that consumers would be reimbursed for phone purchases through a rebate program. They also discovered that cellular phone “minutes” were routinely accumulated as users accessed neighboring U.S. Cellular cell towers for service but not reported until the following month, misleading consumers into believing they had more “minutes” available to them than they actually had.

Through the AVC, which admits no law violation, the company and its subsidiary agreed to clearly disclose the terms of “free” offers, including whether or not a service subscription is required, all aspects and details of any rebate program, whether additional purchases are necessary, and the existence and amounts of one-time fees.

“This case is one of several in which Willamette law students enrolled in the Clinical Law Program have assisted the DOJ in pursuing protections for Oregon consumers,” said David Friedman, visiting assistant professor of clinical legal studies at Willamette University College of Law, who supervised students’ work on the case.

Thanks to Willamette’s partnership with the DOJ, students enrolled in the Clinical Law Program have the opportunity to learn firsthand the details of consumer protection law in Oregon under the direction of seasoned legal practitioners. Eric P. Paulson JD’07, Sean K. Downey JD’07 and Lonn T. Johnston JD’08 initiated work on the case. In addition, Jared D. Boyd JD’08, Ashlee D. Stefani-Sharp JD’08 and James B. Fisher JD’08 put in long hours of research and case preparation.

“This is a nice result for the Clinical Law Program and the DOJ,” Friedman noted. “We were investigating an enormous, complex company that had retained premium local counsel. More important, the settlement is good for consumers in southern and eastern Oregon, where U.S. Cellular concentrates its coverage.”