Justia Utilities Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Consumer Law
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In consolidated cases, the Commonwealth Court reversed determinations of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (“PUC”), holding that Section 1301.1(a) required public utilities to revise their DSIC calculations to include income tax deductions and credits to reduce rates charged to consumers. Several public utilities sought to add or adjust DSICs to recover expenses related to repairing, improving, or replacing their distribution system infrastructure, and the Office of Consumer Advocate (“OCA”), through Acting Consumer Advocate Tanya McCloskey, raised challenges to these DSIC computations seeking to add calculations to account for income tax deductions and credits and thereby reduce the rates charged to consumers. The parties disputed whether and, if so, how the addition of Section 1301.1(a) into Subchapter A of Chapter 13 of the Code, requiring inclusion of “income tax deductions and credits” in rate calculations, should apply to the DSIC rate adjustment mechanism of Subchapter B of Chapter 13, 66 Pa.C.S. sections 1350- 1360. Broadly, the PUC and the public utilities argued: (1) ambiguity existed as to whether the General Assembly intended Section 1301.1 to apply to the DSIC mechanism; and, assuming for argument that it did apply; (2) that the Commonwealth Court’s application of Section 1301.1(a) improperly created conflicts with the statutory provisions governing the DSIC calculation; and/or (3) that certain existing DSIC statutory provisions could be read to satisfy the requirements of Section 1301.1(a). Though the Pennsylvania Supreme Court differed in its reasoning, it affirmed the outcome of the Commonwealth Court's judgment. View "McCloskey v. PUC" on Justia Law

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Southwest Mississippi Electric Power Association (Southwest) was a nonprofit, member-owned electric cooperative corporation created by statute to provide electricity to rural Mississippians. Plaintiffs Ray Virgil, Barbara Lloyd, and Cassandra Johnson were are members of Southwest who filed a lawsuit alleging Southwest failed to return excess revenues and receipts to its members. Southwest moved to compel arbitration. The trial court granted Southwest’s motion to compel arbitration. Plaintiffs appealed. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed. View "Virgil v. Southwest Mississippi Electric Power Association" on Justia Law

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Until 1997, Illinois residents could only purchase power from a public utility, with rates regulated by the ICC. The Electric Service Customer Choice and Rate Relief Law allows residents to buy electricity from their local public utility, another utility, or an Alternative Retail Electric Supplier (ARES). The ICC was not given rate-making authority over ARESs, but was given oversight responsibilities. The Law did not explicitly provide a mechanism for recovering damages from an ARES related to rates. Zahn purchased electricity from NAPG, after receiving an offer of a “New Customer Rate” of $.0499 per kilowatt hour in her first month, followed by a “market-based variable rate.” Zahn never received NAPG’s “New Customer Rate.” NAPG charged her $.0599 per kilowatt hour for the first two months, followed by a rate higher than Zahn’s local public utility charged. Zahn filed a class-action complaint, claiming violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, breach of contract, and unjust enrichment. The court dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, or for failure to state a claim. After the Illinois Supreme Court answered a certified question, stating that the ICC does not have exclusive jurisdiction to hear Zahn’s claims, the Seventh Circuit reversed. The district court had jurisdiction and Zahn alleged facts that, if true, could constitute a breach of contract or a deceptive business practice. View "Zahn v. North American Power & Gas, LLC" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against defendants alleging that defendants violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. 1692 et seq., and New York statutory and common law. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants obtained unauthorized attorneys' fees and costs in connection with actions to foreclose liens on plaintiffs' properties arising out of unpaid municipal property taxes and water and sewer charges. The court held that liens for mandatory water and sewer charges imposed by New York City as an incident to property ownership, which are treated as akin to property tax liens, are not subject to the FDCPA because they do not involve a "debt" as that term is defined in the statute. The court also held that the district court properly declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment of the district court. View "Boyd v. J.E. Robert Co., Inc." on Justia Law

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Petitioner filed a complaint against West Virginia-American Water Company (Respondent) seeking damages and penalties for alleged violations of the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act (WVCCPA) regarding Respondent’s business policies and practices regarding leaks in Petitioner’s water line. The circuit court granted Respondent’s motion to dismiss, finding that Petitioner's claims arose from transactions encompassed by W. Va. Code 46A-1-105(a)(3) and thus were statutorily excluded from the WVCCPA. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that section 46A-1-105(a)(3) applied to exclude Petitioner's WVCCPA claims, and therefore, the circuit court did not err in dismissing Petitioner's complaint. View "Holt v. W. Va. Am. Water Co." on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellee Randy Howard sought to bring a class action suit against Ferrellgas Partners, LP in federal district court for allegedly overcharging him and other customers. Ferrellgas moved to force plaintiff to pursue his individual claim alone, in arbitration, arguing that arbitration was the procedure the parties had agreed to. The district court was unable to conclude that the parties agreed to arbitrate. Rather than proceed to trial as the Federal Arbitation Act required, the district court entered an order denying arbitration outright. The Tenth Circuit concluded that denial was error: "When it's apparent from a quick look at the case that no material disputes of fact exist, it may be permissible and efficient for a district court to decide the arbitration question as a matter of law through motions practice and viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing arbitration. . . . Parties should not have to endure years of waiting and exhaust legions of photocopiers in discovery and motions practice merely to learn where their dispute will be heard. The Act requires courts process the venue question quickly so the parties can get on with the merits of their dispute in the right forum. It calls for a summary trial — not death by discovery." View "Howard v. Ferrellgas Partners, et al" on Justia Law

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An accountant and the company he owned (collectively, MBS), filed suit against Defendants, telecommunications companies, asserting claims for damages under Wis. Stat. 100.207 and other statutes, arguing that Defendants' telephone bills contained unauthorized charges. The circuit court dismissed MBS's claims for relief, determining that although the complaint properly alleged violations of section 100.207, the voluntary payment doctrine barred any entitlement to monetary relief. The court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding (1) the Supreme Court had not decided whether the legislature intended the voluntary payment doctrine to be a viable defense against any cause of action created by a statute; and (2) under the circumstances, the conflict between the manifest purpose of section 100.207 and the common law defense left no doubt that the legislature intended that the common law defense should not be applied to bar claims under the statute. Remanded.View "MBS-Certified Pub. Accountants, LLC v. Wis. Bell Inc." on Justia Law

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Verizon Maryland, a telecommunications company, and the staff of the Public Service Commission (PSC) obtained PSC approval of a global settlement of six pending cases. Verizon employed an alternative form of regulation (AFOR) under Md. Code Ann. Pub. Util. Co. (PUC) 4-301 that included up to $6,000,000 in bill credits to customers with out-of-service complaints that were not resolved in compliance with specified standards. PSC approved the AFOR pursuant to PUC 4-301. A technicians union objected, contending that the service quality aspects of the AFOR did not ensure the quality, availability, and reliability of service required by PUC 4-301. The circuit court affirmed PSC's approval of the AFOR. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that PSC acted within its discretion in approving the AFOR, as PUC 4-301's use of the term "ensuring" did not require that PSC be completely certain that Verizon's incentive strategy would result in compliance with standards.View "Commc'ns Workers of Am., ALF-CIO v. Pub. Serv. Comm'n of Md." on Justia Law

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The trial court dismissed a third amended class action complaint filed in connection with power outages during severe storms. The complaint alleged negligence, breach of contract, and violation of the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act (815 ILCS 505/1). The appellate court and Illinois Supreme Court affirmed. The electric utility's tariff precludes an award of damages; even if such claims were not barred, jurisdiction over matters relating to the utility's service and infrastructure lies with the Illinois Commerce Commission. The Consumer Fraud Act claim alleged that that the company knew or should have known that it failed to sufficiently establish policies and procedures to prevent controllable interruptions of power and to timely respond to those interruptions, in order to protect the health, safety, comfort and convenience of its customers, including those on the life support registry. The claim failed because the company is not required to prioritize those on the life support registry and does not intend that those on the registry rely on it doing so. View "Sheffler v. Commonwealth Edison Co." on Justia Law