Justia Utilities Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Contracts
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In the case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Brandenburg Telephone Company and Sprint Communications were in disagreement over the interest rate on an award that Sprint Communications conceded it owed to Brandenburg Telephone Company. The $2.2 million award was for unpaid fees that Sprint Communications owed for connecting local telephone calls. The dispute centered on Brandenburg's filed utility tariff which set the interest rate. Sprint argued that the tariff set the rate at 8%, and thus owed $4.3 million in interest, while Brandenburg claimed the tariff imposed a rate of 10.66%, which would result in $7.1 million in interest. The district court ruled in favor of Sprint, and the appeals court affirmed this decision.The court reasoned that the 8% rate set by the Kentucky usury statute was applicable. The court noted that while Brandenburg's tariff offered two alternatives for late payment penalty: (1) the highest interest rate (in decimal value) which may be levied by law for commercial transactions, or (2) a rate of .000292 per day (which works out to an annualized rate of 10.66%); the court interpreted the phrase "levied by law for commercial transactions" to refer to the default rate that Kentucky permits to be collected by law, which is 8%.The court rejected Brandenburg's argument that the 10.66% rate was applicable because the tariff could be viewed as an agreement between the parties and Kentucky law allows for parties to agree on higher interest rates. The court pointed out that tariffs are not freely negotiated contracts, but represent the judgment of regulators about what rates and conditions will prove reasonable and uniform for utility customers. Once regulators approve a tariff, the filed-rate doctrine prevents utilities and their customers from contracting around its terms. In this context, the court determined that the tariff's reference to the maximum rate levied by the General Assembly for general commercial transactions aligned with the filed-rate doctrine, and thus, the 8% default rule of interest applied. View "Brandenburg Telephone Co. v. Sprint Comm'ns Co." on Justia Law

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In this review of a decision of the Public Service Commission relating to rates charged by Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) for the provision of electric service, the Supreme Court held that the Commission had not supplied a basis for meaningful judicial review of its conclusion that the settlement agreement provided a reasonable resolution of the issues, established reasonable rates, and was in the public interest.The settlement agreement at issue was between FPL and seven parties that intervened in the matter and permitted FPL to increase its base rates and service charges. After hearing arguments in favor of and against the settlement agreement the Commission concluded that the agreement "provides a reasonable resolution of all issues raised, establishes rates that are fair, just, and reasonable, and is in the public interest." The Supreme Court reversed, holding that remand was required because the Commission failed to perform its duty to explain its reasoning. View "Floridians Against Increased Rates, Inc. v. Clark" on Justia Law

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Monterey is an independent public agency responsible for analyzing Monterey County's water resources. Cal-Am is an investor-owned water utility providing water to over 100,000 residents on the Monterey Peninsula. Marina, a public agency, provides water for the City of Marina and neighboring Monterey Peninsula communities. In 1995 the State Water Resources Control Board ordered Cal-Am to stop drawing water from the Carmel River and develop an alternate water supply. In 2009 Marina, Monterey, and Cal-Am agreed to develop and construct a regional desalinization project to extract brackish water from beneath Monterey Bay, purify it, and deliver it to consumers. In 2010-2011, the parties entered into several agreements. The project was never built. The parties engaged in negotiation and mediation, ending in January 2012 without resolution.In September 2012, Cal-Am submitted a claim under the California Government Claims Act. Litigation followed. In 2019, the trial court entered summary adjudication against Monterey, finding that a negligence cause of action was barred by the two-year statute of limitations and against Cal-Am under the Government Claims Act. The court of appeal reversed. The trial court erred in finding that the “harm” accrued in 2010. There were triable issues of fact as to express waiver and as to the applicability of alternatives to the Claims Act. View "California-American Water Co. v. Marina Coast Water Districtw" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court overruled the decision of the Public Service Commission (PSC) rejecting a proposed development of an eighty-megawatt solar energy facility near Billings, Montana, holding that the PSC violated the requirements of the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) and state law precluding discrimination against solar energy projects.The district court reversed and remanded the PSC's order setting terms and conditions of MTSUN, LLC's proposed eighty megawatt solar project based on findings of violations of due process, PURPA, and Montana's mini-PURPA. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the district court (1) did not err in concluding that the PSC's determinations were arbitrary and unlawful; and (2) relied on record evidence in determining the existence of a legally-enforceable agreement and the avoided-cost rates. View "MTSUN, LLC v. Montana Department of Public Service Regulation" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the order of the Public Service Commission denying PacifiCorp's application for approval of an agreement between PacifiCorp and Monticello Wind Farm, LLC (MWF) for the purchase of wind energy, holding that the Commission was not obligated to approve the agreement under the circumstances of this case.Under Utah and federal law, PacifiCorp and MWF could set the terms for their agreement in one of two ways by either fixing pricing based on PacifiCorp's avoided costs, which would make the contract one negotiated within the Commission's framework, or negotiating their own pricing terms and contractually limiting the scope of the Commission's review. The Commission reviewed the pricing to ensure consistency with PacifiCorp's avoided costs, but the pricing was based on a methodology the Commission had discontinued. The Commission concluded the pricing could not be deemed consistent with PacifiCorp's avoided costs and denied the application. On appeal, MWF asserted that the parties opted out of the Commission's framework, and therefore, the Commission was obligated to approve the agreement. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that this was an agreement the Commission could reject if it obligated PacifiCorp to purchase energy at a price higher than its avoided costs. View "Monticello Wind Farm, LLC v. Public Service Commission of Utah" on Justia Law

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For decades, regulated, vertically-integrated utilities dominated the U.S. electricity market, generating, transmitting, distributing, and collecting payments for electricity. In Illinois that utility was ComEd; its rates are set by the Illinois Commerce Commission. Illinois restructured its electricity market by the Electric Service Customer Choice and Rate Relief Law of 1997, which allows alternative retail electric suppliers to compete with ComEd, setting their own rates and not regulated by the Illinois Commerce Commission. ComEd and alternative suppliers now serve as middlemen, purchasing electricity wholesale from PJM, a regional transmission organization that controls the electric grid covering northern Illinois and several other states, and reselling it to customers. Sevugan contracted with Direct Energy, an alternative supplier, in 2011. In 2013, Sevugan neither re-enrolled nor canceled service, which triggered a “Renewal Clause” with a variable price per kWh. Sevugan sued in 2017, alleging Direct deceived him (and others) with its four-page form contract. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Sevugan’s breach of contract claim, reasoning that Sevugan did not allege facts showing Direct’s rates were not “based on generally prevailing market prices,” or that its “adder,” a discretionary component of the electricity price, was “unreasonable.” View "Sevugan v. Direct Energy Services, LLC" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the district court granting summary judgment to Flathead Electric Cooperative, Inc. (FEC) alleging a violation of the Rural Electric and Telephone Cooperative Act (RETCA), holding that the district court did not err in determining that Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations.Plaintiffs were former members who received electrical services from FEC, a tax-exempt rural electrical cooperative owned by its members and organized under RETCA, but since moved out of FEC’s area. In this action, Plaintiffs alleged that FEC’s practice of allocating capital credits to each member’s capital account but not actually retiring and refunding the capital credits until sometime in the future violated RETCA. The district court granted summary judgment to FEC, ruling in part that Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations. View "Wolfe v. Flathead Electric Cooperative, Inc." on Justia Law

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In a 2005 Cooperation and Option Agreement to facilitate Russell's construction and operation of the Energy Center, a natural gas-fired, combined cycle electric generating facility in Hayward, the city granted Russell an option to purchase 12.5 acres of city-owned land as the Energy Center's site and promised to help Russell obtain permits, approvals, and water treatment services. Russell conveyed a 3.5-acre parcel to the city. The Agreement's “Payments Clause” prohibited the city from imposing any taxes on the “development, construction, ownership and operation” of the Energy Center except taxes tethered to real estate ownership. In 2009, Hayward voters approved an ordinance that imposes “a tax upon every person using electricity in the City. … at the rate of five and one-half percent (5.5%) of the charges made for such electricity” with a similar provision regarding gas usage. Russell began building the Energy Center in 2010. In 2011, the city informed Russell it must pay the utility tax. The Energy Center is operational.The court of appeal affirmed a holding that the Payments Clause was unenforceable as violating California Constitution article XIII, section 31, which provides “[t]he power to tax may not be surrendered or suspended by grant or contract.” Russell may amend its complaint to allege a quasi-contractual restitution claim. View "Russell City Energy Co. v. City of Hayward" on Justia Law

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In 2005, Duke Energy bought, from Benton, renewable energy at a price high enough to enable construction of wind turbines, and acquired tradeable renewable‑energy credits. The contract requires Duke to pay Benton for all power delivered during the next 20 years. When Benton's 100-megawat facility started operating in 2008 it was the only area wind farm. Duke paid for everything Benton could produce. The regional transmission organization, Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which implements a bidding system for the network, cleared the power to the regional grid. By 2015, aggregate capacity of local wind farms reached 1,745 megawatts, exceeding the local grid’s capacity. At times, would‑be producers must pay MISO to take power; buyers get free electricity. Initially, MISO allowed wind farms to deliver to the grid no matter what other producers (coal, nuclear, solar, hydro) were doing, which meant that such producers had to cut back. On March 1, 2013, the rules changed to put wind farms on a par with other producers. Under MISO’s new system, with Duke’s responsive bid, Benton has gone from delivering power 100% of the time the wind allowed to delivering only 59% of the time. The district court agreed with Duke that, when MISO tells Benton to stop delivering power, it does not owe Benton anything, rejecting Benton’s claim that Duke could put Benton’s power on the grid by bidding to displace other power, and that when Duke does not, it owes liquidated damages. The judge found that bidding $0 is “reasonable” cooperation. The Seventh Circuit reversed; the contract implies that Duke must do what is needed to make transmission capacity available. View "Benton County Wind Farm LLC v. Duke Energy Indiana, Inc." on Justia Law

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Pilkington North America, Inc. entered into a social contract with Toledo Edison Company under which Toledo provided one of Pilkington’s facilities with discounted electric service. The Public Utilities Commission approved the special contract. Pilkington later filed a complaint alleging that Toledo Edison had unlawfully terminated the special contract. Five other companies that also had special contracts with the utility also filed complaints against Toledo Edison. The Commission consolidated the six complaints and dismissed them. With the exception of Pilkington, each of the industrial customers appealed the Commission’s decision. The Supreme Court reversed the Commission’s order, concluding that Toledo Edison had prematurely terminated the special contracts. Pilkington subsequently filed a Ohio R. Civ. P. 60(B) motion for relief from judgment with the Commission seeking relief from the Commission’s order dismissing its complaint and its order denying the application for rehearing that the other five complainants filed. The Commission denied Pilkington’s motion, concluding that Pilkington may not use Rule 60(B) as a substitute for appeal. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that because Pilkington did not appeal the Commission’s adverse judgment, that judgment is final, and res judicata precludes the use of Rule 60(B) to obtain relief from that final judgment. View "In re Complaint of Pilkington N. Am., Inc." on Justia Law