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Chesco-based collection firm loses harassment case

Allen Jones says he doesn't remember what he charged on that $81 credit-card bill three years ago. But the messages he got from the bill collectors were unforgettable.

Allen Jones says he doesn't remember what he charged on that $81 credit-card bill three years ago. But the messages he got from the bill collectors were unforgettable.

Thanks to a series of profane and racist telephone messages in which the Dallas businessman was called the N-word and repeatedly threatened, Jones has won a $1.5 million verdict against a Chester County company and two of its former employees.

"Hey, what's up, you . . . n-," said one of eight chilling messages played for the Texas jury that reached its verdict last Friday.

"I was scared," Jones, 26, said in a telephone interview from Dallas on Thursday.

Repeated calls seeking comment from the company, Advanced Call Center Technologies of Berwyn, were not returned.

Jones' odyssey began in the summer of 2007 when he received a call from bill collectors asking for a payment they said was overdue on his credit card.

Jones said he explained that he had already paid the credit-card bill, and he went online to check. When the bill collectors called again, he advised them not to call back.

"They said they could call me as many times as they wanted," Jones said.

After he complained to a company supervisor, he began to get the threatening calls, he said, from two different men, some laced with Spanish words. Other voice mails suggested that Jones, who is African American, should pick cotton and eat watermelon. In some calls, men mentioned Jones' wife by name and made sexual comments about her.

"They threatened to cut me, to shank me, and other aggressive stuff," Jones said. "I was shocked. I honestly couldn't believe what I was hearing on my voice mail."

Advanced Call Center Technologies, which attorneys for Jones say employs 4,500 to 5,500 people, said it was disappointed with the verdict but condemned the contents of the voice-mail messages.

"There was no testimony that ACT condoned or tolerated this kind of language as part of this collection," said Dean Siotos, a Dallas lawyer who represented both the company, which refers to itself as ACT, and Alonso Rodriguez, a defendant.

Neither Rodriguez nor codefendant Carlos C. Oliva still works at the company's office in Harlingen, Texas, where the calls purportedly originated.

Further, said Siotos, the defendants denied making the calls. He said the evidence in the trial did not show whether the calls had emanated from the Harlingen center or had been placed during working hours.

"It had to be outside business hours and in a location outside ACT and in no case consistent with ACT's policy in their collections department," Siotos said.

He said ACT had not yet decided whether it will appeal the jury's verdict.

On the company's website, Joseph Lembo, identified as ACT's chief executive officer, is quoted in a 2006 news release exulting at the business' having won an award for its devotion to multiculturalism.

"Our people are at the heart of our success," Lembo is quoted as saying. "We know diversity in the workplace is good for business."

Mark Frenkel, an attorney for Jones, said that as part of the lawsuit, he and cocounsel Dean Malone took sworn depositions from "a lot of people" who had worked for the company's Texas operation, and that "the 'F-word' and 'N-word' were commonplace down there."

"They would have the consumer on the line, put them on mute, and make fun of them," Frenkel said in an interview Thursday. "They would taunt people's answering machines. That's the picture the jury saw."

In the end, the lawyer said, Jones was called between 40 and 50 times - including eight messages that were laced with obscenities.

"I think it was the corporate culture in Harlingen to hire young aggressive males, and they were supervised by young aggressive males, and it got out of hand," Frenkel said.

The entire ordeal was hard to believe, echoed the other plaintiff's lawyer, Malone.

"No reasonable person would leave messages like this," Malone said. "They're disgusting, profane, harassing and demeaning."

Jones, who runs an online clothing-sales business, said what matters to him is that the nightmare is finally over and his city and state did right by him.

He said, "I think the City of Dallas and the State of Texas really took a stand to prove that this would not be tolerated in this country."