EDEN — A bar owner settled a fraud lawsuit with DirecTV Thursday, Aug. 20, paying the giant satellite service provider $4,750 over claims that she misrepresented herself as a residential customer.
Saddlebag Saloon owner Sherrie Brennan refutes that she did anything wrong -- she said she told the company from the beginning that the service was for her business and that she never requested or signed up for a residential account.
She is not the only person to refute such claims from the tv service giant -- reports of bar and restaurant owners being sued by DirecTV have been bubbling up all over the country. Many of their stories are similar and most argue that they never intended to sign up for residential service.
Brennan opened her bar in the quiet town of Eden in July 2014 with the hopes of attracting customers by setting up three new TVs. While getting other supplies at Sam’s Club, she was thrilled to see a DirecTV salesperson in the store.
“For years I had DirecTV (at home) and have always been happy with them,” Brennan said.
The salesperson had Brennan fill out some information and sign a form and told her that someone else will contact her to setup an installation time.
“Nowhere on the agreement that I signed did it say ’residential’ or ’business,’ it just said to sign up for service and for what we wanted,” Brennan said.
Two technicians came out separately to install the tv service and neither mentioned anything about commercial or residential setup.
“Again, obviously a bar here, both of the service people had seen that this was obviously a bar,” Brennan said.
But earlier this month, one year after the installation, her service stopped working. A technician who came to fix the problem said that he couldn’t, that it was blocking him for some reason and that Brennan needed to call a certain phone number for the company. She left a voice message.
“The next day I get called by a person that told me she was an attorney and she was representing DirecTV and I had fraudulently signed up as a residential customer,” Brennan said. “I said ’clearly I’m a business, I never intended to sign up as a residential customer. I didn’t fill out the paperwork, your salesperson did.’”
The attorney nevertheless told her that she was being sued for fraud — a federal offense — and offered she could resolve it for a $10,000 payment.
“I thought it was a scam. My attorney thought it was a scam as well,” said Brennan, who hired attorney Ryan B. Wilkinson of the law firm Kaufman, Nichols and Kaufman.
Brennan’s alleged offense is not the first time DirecTV has sued its customers for fraudulently misrepresenting themselves. The Bangor Daily News reports that DirecTV sued a pub owner in Maine because he received DirecTV programming without a commercial license. That man said he didn’t know how DirecTV didn’t know he was showing their programming in a pub -- technicians repaired his equipment several times since installing it a decade earlier.
DirecTV responded that the company didn’t know because the man had “set up an account at a residential address at least a mile away.”
According to the report, DirectTV made a similar offer to the man when he called the company’s lawyer — pay $15,000 and resolve it now, or go to court.
A restaurant owner in Garland, Texas, also was confronted by the company, this time the customer was told he owed $15,000 in back bills. The Dallas Morning News reports the man hired an attorney who counter-sued the company for fraud, conspiracy and racketeering.
During the litigation, the man who installed DirecTV became sympathetic to the restaurant owner’s situation and sent DirecTV an email stating that he did not know “the difference between the commercial and residential...” and that neither did the owner. “Simply a mistake,” he said.
DirecTV continued with the lawsuit anyway. The report further alleges similar incidents happening in Ohio, North Carolina, California and Pennsylvania.
“For a company like DirecTV to hire a law firm specifically to go after small businesses -- the method is just offensive and predatory,” Wilkinson said, referring to New York firm Lonstein Law Office.
However, Wilkinson says that the law does not clearly say whether customers, salespeople or service technicians are responsible for the offense and that not knowing the law is unfortunately not a defense.
Brennan said her service was discontinued after a man came to her bar with a camcorder. He placed it on the counter and pointed it towards the television set, and then asked one of the employees to change the channel. She did, and the TV showed that it received DirecTV programming.
The man promptly left thereafter.
“(Lonstein Law Office) said it was a random audit,” said Brennan, referring to information she got after litigation began.
Wilkinson said he has seen reports that either DirecTV or Lonstein Law Office hires people to check on local small businesses and pays $750 for every referral that is shown to be an actual violation -- an independent audit fee in that amount was included in court documents in Sherrie Brennan’s case.
“It makes you wonder if people are doing this for a living,” Wilkinson said.
Brennan since paid for Dish Network service for her bar, making sure that she is paying for commercial service.
“I told the salesperson for Dish Network to warn customers that if they sign up for residential service when they have a business that it could cost them $100,000,” Brennan said.
The Dish Network salesman responded that the company’s policy is that if a technician sees that it is a business and doesn’t record it as such, then the technician is liable.
DirecTV has taken legal action against local stores for alleged misuse of its programming at least since 2007, when the company said in a press release that it “is turning up the heat on restaurants and bars that are misusing or misappropriating DirecTV programming.”
The company received a $50,000 judgment that year in a civil lawsuit against a bar in New York. It was the result of one of five lawsuits filed in 2006, the year before.
“If they’re trying to make a point to the world, then make the point clearer,” Brennan said. “Make it bolder in your envelopes, talk to your salespeople. I truly felt swindled.”