By ZAC OSWALD
Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands
We’ve all been there.
Maybe we’re signing up for a cable package, or renting a car, or opening a bank account. We sign a contract with a service provider — usually a large company — without really reading, or fully processing, its fine print.
And as some of us have subsequently found out, sometimes what we think is a straightforward agreement isn’t quite so straightforward. Maybe a monthly payment goes up unexpectedly, or there are additional fees tacked onto a bill that come as a surprise.
Consumers can be understandably confused and at a loss on what their rights are and how to confront the issue. For certain Middle Tennesseans who fall within an income threshold, Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee of the Cumberlands — where I’m an attorney — is able to provide legal guidance and assistance.
For other consumers who may not qualify for our services, some background might be helpful to consider before contacting the company in question to dispute changes to your contract.
In general, it’s important to keep in mind that having a contract doesn’t always mean that your payment is fixed. However, if a company raises your rates unexpectedly, you might have the right to end your contract with that company after taking certain steps.
The legal side of contracts
Generally, a contract is a legal agreement where each person in the contract says what rights and duties they have for a specific length of time. If one side doesn’t do what they say they’ll do or changes the terms, then the contract is broken. But many standard consumer contracts contain fine print stating that the terms can change — which consumers often miss.
When can a contract increase?
Sometimes, companies will give themselves the right to increase certain rates during the contract without it being considered a “change” to the contract. Here’s an example in a major cable provider’s contract: “[F]ees, including Broadcast TV Fee (currently up to XX/mo.), Regional Sports Fee (currently up to XX/mo.) … are extra, such charges and fees are subject to change during and after the term of this Agreement.” Although the company has agreed to charge you a set rate for your cable package, some fees are out of the cable company’s control. If this clause is in your contract, the company probably can increase your rate.
When to dispute a charge
Should you dispute charge increases if your contract says they can go up? Maybe. Sometimes, you can call to negotiate with the company if you’ve been a long-term customer. With so many options out there, a company might be willing to work with you to keep you as a customer. At the very least, it’s worth a call.
You can also look at the termination fee. The same contract referenced above charges $10 for each month of the contract remaining when the customer terminates the deal. If you’re close to the end of your contract, the savings of moving to another company might outweigh the termination fee you have to pay.
When a company can’t increase rates
Other contracts either lock in your rate or give you the option to choose to pay the increase amount or cancel your contract.
For instance, here is a part of a security company’s contract: “I agree that Dealer has the right to increase the annual service charge at any time after the first year. If I object in writing to the increase within thirty (30) days of receiving notice of the increase, and if Dealer does not waive the increase, then I may terminate this Contract effective thirty (30) days after Dealer’s receipt of My written notice of termination. In this situation, I will not have to pay the contract termination charges described in Paragraph 2 above.”
In short, the company can increase a customer’s rate, but the customer can dispute the increase — within a 30-day window. When that happens, the company has to choose if they want to keep the customer at the original contract rate or cancel the agreement.
How to dispute or terminate a contract
If you’re upset about a rate increase and have a right to dispute the change, how do you go about that? All disputes should be made in writing, usually by letter. Explain to the company that you don’t want them to increase your rate and that if they don’t fix it, you’re going to cancel the contract.
Read your contract carefully before doing this to ensure you’re doing things right. Although most contracts with big companies are long, it’s important to read the relevant parts before deciding to terminate your agreement. Before sending the letter, keep a copy for yourself so you can prove what you sent them. If the company doesn’t reduce your rate, then you may have the right to cancel your contract.
When you’re in a contract with a big company, your rights can vary. The only way to protect yourself is to read through the important parts of your contract and be diligent about telling the company you’re upset about the changes they’re making.
Want to know more about your rights in contracts with big companies? Visit www.las.org or come to one of our free monthly legal clinics. At our clinics, you can get a brief consult with a private attorney at no cost. If you come to a clinic, bring your paperwork or a way to access the relevant account.
About Zac Oswald
Zac Oswald is the managing attorney of Legal Aid Society’s Gallatin office, practicing Housing and Consumer Law, and the team lead of the firm’s Housing Practice Group. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and a 2013 cum laude graduate of University of Miami School of Law. He started at Legal Aid Society in 2014 as a University of Miami Legal Corps Fellow, working primarily in the Family Law Unit. He was the 2016 recipient of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Service’s New Advocate of the Year award.
About Legal Aid Society
Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands advocates for fairness and justice under the law. The non-profit law firm offers free civil legal representation and educational programs to help people in its region receive justice, protect their well-being and support opportunities to overcome poverty. It serves 48 counties from offices in Clarksville, Columbia, Cookeville, Gallatin, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Oak Ridge and Tullahoma. Legal Aid Society is funded in part by United Way. Learn more at www.las.org or by following the firm on Facebook.