Justia Utilities Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in South Carolina Supreme Court
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An industrial park was built in an unincorporated area in Laurens County, South Carolina, between the City of Laurens (Laurens) and the City of Fountain Inn (Fountain Inn). Both municipalities provided natural gas service beyond their respective borders, and each sought to serve the industrial customers in the new industrial park. However, Laurens -through its subsidiary, the Laurens Commission of Public Works (LCPW) - claimed Fountain Inn could not compete for the industrial customers' business because LCPW had established a designated service area and therefore was the sole authorized natural gas provider to the industrial park. Fountain Inn believed the industrial park was not part of a designated service area, and thus LCPW did not have an exclusive right to provide natural gas to customers in the industrial park. In support of its claim, LCPW asserted it had satisfied the requirements of S.C. Code section 5-7-60 (2004) by providing natural gas in the general vicinity for twenty years pursuant to a 1992 boundary line that was informally agreed to by Laurens and Fountain Inn. Agreeing with LCPW that it had properly created a designated service area, the circuit court enjoined Fountain Inn from providing natural gas service to the industrial park, and the court of appeals affirmed. Because there was no reasonable interpretation of section 5-7-60 that would permit LCPW to claim a designated service area over the industrial park, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed. View "Commissioners of Public Works v. City of Fountain Inn" on Justia Law

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Daufuskie Island Utility Company, Inc. (DIUC) filed an application with the Public Service Commission for a rate increase for the water and sewer service it provides to residents of Daufuskie Island in Beaufort County. During a hearing on the merits of the application, the commission approved a purported settlement agreement between the Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) and three property owners' associations: Haig Point Club and Community Association Inc., Melrose Property Owner's Association, Inc., and Bloody Point Property Owner's Association. DIUC appealed, and the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed, finding the agreement "was not a true settlement" because DIUC did not agree to it. The case was thereafter remanded the case to the commission for a new hearing on all issues. On remand, the commission held a second hearing on the merits and issued a second order. DIUC appealed the second order, arguing the commission erred in disallowing certain rate case expenses and refusing to include items of capital in DIUC's rate base. DIUC argued ORS and the commission applied a higher standard of scrutiny on remand in retaliation against DIUC for successfully seeking reversal of the commission's initial order. At oral argument on this second appeal, when pressed by the Court to respond to DIUC's "retaliation" argument, appellate counsel for ORS conceded a heightened standard had been employed. In reversing the Commission, the Supreme Court determined the arbitrary, higher standard of scrutiny affected substantial rights of DIUC. The commission's findings of fact and conclusions of law therefore had to be reversed. The matter was remanded again for a new hearing. View "Daufuskie Island v. SC Office of Regulatory Staff" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Daufuskie Island Utility Company ("DIUC") appeals an order of the South Carolina Public Service Commission ("Commission") granting only thirty-nine percent of the additional revenue requested in its application. DIUC applied to the Commission for approval of a new rate schedule which would provide a 108.9% revenue increase. Due to the substantial increase in its tax liability and its inability to seek further revenue increases until July 2014, DIUC entered into an agreement with Beaufort County to pay the back taxes for years 2012, 2013, 2014, and the projected tax for 2015. Critical to this case was the ownership of an elevated water tank, well, water pump, system pipes, and other DIUC equipment located on a site which was sold at a tax sale in 2010 (“Elevated Tank Site”). Due to a clerical error, tax on the property was not paid, and DIUC did not discover the property had been sold until 2012. Although the tax deed purported to convey the property "all and singular . . . with the appurtenances," DIUC presented testimony from the Beaufort County Treasurer, Maria Walls, that the tax deed did not convey "the elevated water tank, the well, the water pump, system pipes, or other DIUC property located on the Elevated Tank[] Site." Despite providing no evidence to the contrary to support its recommendation, ORS proposed excluding the value of the utility equipment located on the property when calculating DIUC's rate base and property taxes. A hearing on the merits of DIUC's application was held in October 2015. The day before the hearing, several intervening property owner associations (POAs) filed a Settlement Agreement they had entered with ORS for the Commission's consideration. Pursuant to the Agreement, ORS and the POAs stipulated to each party's testimony and exhibits in the record, and the parties agreed to accept all of ORS's adjustments and recommendations, with the exception of the bad debt expense for which they agreed to adopt DIUC's proposal.5 At the hearing, DIUC objected to the admission of the Settlement Agreement, arguing it was irrelevant and prejudicial because it bolstered ORS's recommendations without providing any new or additional evidence to support them. Over DIUC's objection, the Commission admitted the Agreement, reasoning it was more probative than prejudicial. The South Carolina Supreme Court found the Commission erred in admitting evidence of the POA settlement; and the Commission’s findings and conclusions with respect to DIUC’s property taxes were not supported by substantial evidence. The Court remanded for a new hearing. View "Daufuskie Island v. Regulatory Staff" on Justia Law