In a move affecting nearly every type of dispute brought to the agency, the FCC adopted a Report and Order (“Order”) at its July meeting establishing a streamlined set of formal complaint rules. The new rules cover complaints against common carriers, pole attachment complaints, and complaints involving accessibility for people with disabilities. The revised procedures impose a uniform deadline for answering complaints, eliminate a number of procedural requirements, expand the discovery process, and establish a “shot clock” for FCC decisions. The reforms aim to lower the overall burden on complainants, potentially opening the door to the resolution of more disputes with the FCC instead of in court or elsewhere.
The FCC used the current process for complaints against common carriers as the model for reforming the pole attachment and disabilities access formal complaint rules. The FCC adopted a uniform deadline of 30 days for responding to a formal complaint, expanding the current answer period by 10 days for complaints against common carriers and disabilities access complaints. The FCC also eliminated the burdensome requirement to include proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law in complaint filings, noting that the agency already waived this obligation in most proceedings. Moreover, the FCC expanded its discovery procedures, allowing parties in all types of formal complaint proceedings to ask questions through written interrogatories. To encourage more settlements, the FCC now will require all formal complaints to certify that the complainant engaged in “executive-level” discussions with the other party before filing. Critically, the FCC established a 270-day “shot clock” for its decisions on formal complaints, although the agency did not indicate what would happen if it exceeded the deadline. While the FCC aimed to make formal complaint procedures more uniform, it decided to retain certain evidentiary rules for pole attachment complaints – including the requirement to submit information regarding pole costs – that the agency found critical to resolving disputes.
The Order generally adopted the proposals put forward last year to streamline the complaint process, but it drew a harsh rebuke from Commissioner Rosenworcel, who questioned whether certain changes undermined consumers’ ability to receive proper consideration of their informal complaints of industry practices with the FCC. Besides its formal complaint reforms, the FCC also adopted a proposal to clarify its informal complaint rules. Currently, the FCC’s informal complaint rules state that, “[i]f the [informal] complainant is not satisfied by the carrier’s response and the Commission’s disposition, it may file a formal complaint.” In a footnote in the Order, the FCC deleted the phrase “and the Commission’s disposition,” stating that it was not FCC practice “to dispose of informal complaints on substantive grounds.” Commissioner Rosenworcel dissented and expressed concern that this change was inconsistent with the FCC’s longstanding practice of studying informal consumer complaints and working with providers to resolve the problem. In response, Chairman Pai argued that the wording change would not impact current informal complaint procedures or prevent the FCC from relying on informal complaints in enforcement actions. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the changes will result in more informal complaints being shunted into the new formal complaint process.