Legislation Allows Domestic Violence Survivors To End Contracts

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed legislation (A.5318/S.2356) requiring companies to allow victims of domestic violence, who are fleeing their batterers and have received an order of protection, to terminate their multi-year or bundled contract with a telephone or cable or satellite company at a location they have fled without penalty.

“Survivors of domestic violence should not have to handle the added stress and red tape that comes with contract termination penalties,” Cuomo said. “When leaving an abusive environment, a clean break is critical and in New York we will give survivors the resources they need to move onto the next chapter of their lives.”

While multi-year contracts with telephone or cable companies offer consumers better price-saving options, the fees to cancel such contracts vary across providers and can be charged to victims of domestic violence who are fleeing their abusers. In many cases of domestic violence, it is necessary for victims to leave behind items of intrinsic and financial value and sever all ties with their offender.

By allowing victims, who submit a written claim, to terminate their contracts at a location they have fled without penalty, we are strengthening protections for victims and providing tools to potentially ease the stress and trauma often associated with domestic violence.

State Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, questioned Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, D-Fresh Meadows and sponsor of the legislation, on the Assembly floor. The bulk of Goodell’s questioning focused on the type of paperwork, if any, that would be required before a contract could be cancelled. Rozic said the simple fact a domestic violence victim someone would actively try to cancel such a contract is not an action taken lightly, so a police report or order of protection shouldn’t be necessary to prove to the provider that a contract should be broken.

Goodell also asked if there was any opportunity for the companies to question the request in any type of judicial proceeding or otherwise prove the validity of the request.

“Again, I go back to my original point which is, you know, this is not something that victims of domestic violence do or seek lightly and it’s a very serious situation. They’re not just going to abuse the system in that way. And if they do, and if a company suspects fraud, they can take appropriate measures.”

The Jamestown Republican also asked Rozic if the abuse needs to occur after the contract was signed or if cell phone companies, for example, could refuse to renew service or sign a new contract with a victim who had previously cancelled their contract under the domestic violence abuse provision. He also asked if someone would have to pay for their cell phone, if it was financed by a provider, or return their cell phone if they use the new state law to break their contract. Rozic said the legislation signed Wednesday doesn’t cover such situations, but could be taken up in future legislation.

Lastly, Goodell asked if the ability to cancel an existing contract as soon as the legislation takes effect is consistent with the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against state legislatures adopting legislation that impairs existing contracts. Rozic said the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act gives states the right to regulate contract terms and parameters.

“So we trample due process rights of any of these companies, we implement a bill that’s unconstitutional because it violates existing contracts, we don’t require any nexus or any connection at all between the alleged abuse and the contract that’s being cancelled, we don’t provide a mechanism for the phone company to even sue the abuser to recover any damages, we don’t require the abuser’s identity to be disclosed, we don’t require a police report, we don’t require the alleged abuser to even sign under oath that they actually are the victim,” Goodell said. “There’s nothing in here, no checks or balances of any kind. So, if we want to reduce abuse, let’s encourage those who are abused to file a police report to identify the abuser, to cooperate with law enforcement, to — if they’re concerned about their safety, to seek an order of protection.”

In his remarks on the bill, Goodell said he found several faults with the bill, including the lack of third party involvement and the ability to unilaterally break contracts. His biggest fault, though, is that the legislation doesn’t do enough to combat domestic violence.

“But most troubling to me is there’s nothing in this bill that focuses on the underlying cause of domestic violence,” Goodell said. “You know, when we let somebody get out of a residential lease, they get out of it when there’s an order of protection and the court is involved and there’s enforcement action that’s being taken against the abuser. But this bill doesn’t require that the abuser even be identified. There’s nothing that stops further domestic violence. There’s no requirement under this bill for a police report. There’s no requirement that the abuser’s name be identified or that we take any steps of any kind to stop the future abuse.”

Goodell was one of seven Assembly members to vote against the bill during a 134-7. Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan, voted in favor of the bill and said passing the legislation removes one element of concern for victims of domestic violence.

“Most individuals who are facing domestic violence feel in many instances some shame and fear,” Glick said. “There’s a constellation of issues they have to deal with, family, maybe children, a cell phone contract is not necessarily high on their list. Many people do not seek an order of protection because that is frequently when one is most in danger by signaling to the abuser that you’re taking action. Depending on where you are, the police may be more or less receptive to taking a complaint. And so, this is just removing one element of concern that you are not tied into something. You may have to switch your job, you may have to switch where you live. There are a great many issues you may be confronting and so this is, I think, a reasonable measure. People are not going to defraud by coming forward and saying, I am a victim of domestic violence; therefore I want to get out of this contract. That is a fantasy.”

Assemblyman Charles Barron, D-Brooklyn, then took to the Assembly floor to criticize Goodell’s line of questioning of Rozic.

“This is incredible,” Barron said. “It seems like my colleague wants an order of protection for the cell phone company or for a Cablevision company to protect them more than protecting a victim of domestic violence. I think it’s absurd to think that someone — this bill clearly states that those who have permanent order of protections should be allowed to get out of these contracts. To be more concerned about somebody ripping off a cell phone company or a Cablevision company with some fraudulent excuse of domestic violence I think is absurd. It’s incredible. I was sitting there saying, let me not talk during the 15-minute time because I may come back for 15 minutes, so I just wanted to say it now that for someone to be more concerned about a cell phone company being abused or ripped off than a person being a victim of domestic violence and trying to ease the pain the little bit that getting out of a contract would do, I think it’s just a no-brainer so I commend the sponsor of this bill and I gladly vote in the affirmative.”

COMMENTS