Utilities Termination Issues
Authored By: MidPenn Legal Services
I. What Are Public Utilities?
A public utility is an entity which provides a basic, and usually necessary, service to members of the general public. Public utilities generally may not refuse to provide service to anyone who demands it. Familiar services provided by public utilities are telephone services, heating fuel services, and electric service.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) is a state agency that oversees the operation of many public utilities. A Major responsibility of the PUC is regulating termination of services by public utilities.
Although some types of service providers are not subject to regulation by the PUC they are, nevertheless, still public utilities. An example is the rural electrical cooperative. These Cooperatives provide service to many persons and usually follow policies similar to the PUC regulated utilities.
Another example is a utility provider owned by the borough, township, or city where the customers live. These municipally owned utilities usually have made their own regulations which they must follow when providing service or ending it. Customers of the municipally owned provider would see these regulations, which are available at the municipal office, so that they are aware of their rights and responsibilities.
Many problems that customers may have with rural electrical coops and municipally owned utilities can usually be straightened out by contacting the provider's officers. However, since these types of providers are not generally regulated by the PUC, you should seek legal advice right away if a problem does arise.
The termination decisions of municipal utility providers are appealable to your County Court of Common Pleas. Such appeals MUST be filed, in writing, with the court within 30 days of the municipality's decision; because of this, you should contact an attorney right away if you have a problem with an municipally owned provider.
It is VERY IMPORTANT to remember that if a municipally owned utility sells its services to people who live outside the boundaries of the utility then the utility must follow PUC regulations as far as those customers are concerned.
II. General Service Termination Protections and Procedures
A. PUC Regulated Utilities Other Than Telephone Service Providers
1. Filing a Dispute with the Service Provider - a utility customer may have a disagreement with a utility regarding the amount of a bill, the accuracy of a meter reading, etc. When a disagreement is made known to the utility then, under the law, a dispute has been filed. For instance, a dispute is filed when the customer cannot pay a late bill and calls the company to let it know that he or she would like to arrange to make payments or to inform it that the billing might be in error. Although the dispute can be filed orally or in writing it is strongly advised that you enter the dispute in writing.
If the dispute is filed before the service has been cut off then a regulated utility may not stop service until the dispute has been settled as long as the customer pays the part of the bill that is not disputed. It is dangerous for a customer to fail to file a dispute before termination of service. It will probably be treated as a waiver of the right to the protections that will be described later.
Most importantly, when a customer tells that the utility that he or she is not able to pay an undisputed bill, the utility must make a serious effort to work out a reasonable repayment arrangement with the customer.
The utility is required to investigate the disputed matter and, within thirty days, must give a written report to the customer. The report is to contain, among other things, a statement of the issues and a statement of the utility's position on the issues. It also must fully inform the customer of the right to file an informal complaint if he or she does not agree with the position of the utility. The notice must say that the customer must file an informal complaint within 10 days from the mailing date of the report to fully protect the customer's rights. It must give the phone number and address for the PUC office where the informal complaint must be filed. It must explain the procedures followed by the PUC when dealing with informal complaints. The notice must also advise the customer that service will not be terminated until completion of the informal and formal complaint processes. The notice must also tell the customer what must be done to avoid losing the service and of the date on or after which service could be terminated. This will be at least ten days from the date of issuance of the utility company report.
2. Filing a Informal Complaint with the PUC -
The customer has the right to file an informal complaint with the PUC if not satisfied with the result of the dispute. This must be filed, except for very good cause, within ten days of the mailing date of the utility report described above. It may be filed orally or in writing and must include basic information identifying the customer and a brief description of the dispute. FILE IT IN WRITING. When a informal complaint is filed, the PUC will notify the utility, review the dispute and, within a reasonable time, give an informal report telling the customer and the utility of its findings and decision.
The PUC has great flexibility in reviewing the dispute and may conduct conferences in which the customer can present his or her case and have witnesses testify. The customer may represent him/herself or have legal counsel or another representative of his or her choice. The PUC may also decide to act as a mediator to try to reach a settlement between the utility and the customer. It may put any settlement reached into a written agreement for the customer and provider to follow.
3. Filing a Formal Complaint with the PUC -
If the customer is not satisfied with the decision entered on the informal complaint, he or she may file a formal complaint with the PUC within 20 days of the mailing date of the decision. This must be done in writing. These procedures are structured quite a bit more formally but the PUC does provide forms and instructions that enable a customer to file a formal complaint without an attorney.
There is a special rule dealing with cases where the issue is the customer's ability to pay the utility bill; this includes cases in which a repayment agreement was reached in the past but cannot be kept by the customer. The procedure uses a specially appointed agent to decide whether some solution can be reached. There is a stay, or hold, placed on the need for the customer to make payments under the repayment agreement but the utility may ask that the stay be lifted. The customer must still pay current undisputed bills during this appeal procedure.
B. Notices Before Termination
1. The following termination notice provisions apply to PUC regulated utilities and only to services other than telephone service. Remember that the customer has the ability to prevent terminations according to the notices if he or she files a dispute as described above. This is as simple as a telephone call and it is much easier to prevent disconnection than it is to get service continued after a shut-off. All pre-termination notices must advise the customer of the right to file a dispute and that this will frequently prevent disconnection.
The basic notice procedures are:
- The utility must give at least ten days notice, in writing, before, the proposed shut-off.
- The utility must attempt to personally contact an adult household resident at least three days before the proposed shut-off date;
- If such contact cannot be made, the utility must try to contact an adult resident immediately before the shut-off. If this cannot be done, the utility must post a notice in a obvious place at the residence advising that the utility will be shut-0off in not less than 48 hours.
2. Winter Moratorium - PUC regulated utilities which provide heat related services are not permitted to terminate service between December 1 and March 31 unless they attempt to reach an agreement for the payment of the bill. If no agreement can be reached, the utility provider must notify the PUC in writing that no agreement has been reached. It must then ask for specific permission to terminate service.
If PUC gives permission, it sets up an informal conference whether the customer has asked for one or not. This is so that the PUC can insure that service was not shut-off without a good reason.
Further, if a heat related utility was shut-off between April 1 and November 30, the utility must contact the resident at least 30 days before December 1 to try to make a agreement under which the utility can be reconnected.
3. Medical Emergency in Household - Where there is a seriously ill person in the household, or if a serious medical condition will worsen, a regulated utility may not stop service as long as the customer provides medical certification of these facts within three days. Postponements are for 30 days but can be renewed by medical certification. The customer must still make arrangements to pay all bills. Terminated services must also be restored if the customer has such a medical emergency.
4. Other "Shut-off" Rules - Except in emergencies, utility service may not be shut-off on the following:
- Friday, Saturday or Sunday;
- On a bank holiday or the day before a bank holiday;
- On a holiday observed by the utility or the day before that holiday. This includes any day that the office is closed;
- On a holiday observed by the PUC or the day before such a holiday.
III. Telephone Service for Local Calls
The above basic procedures, with some differences, are also followed for suspension or termination of services by a telephone utility which provides local calling services. Long distance providers have different rules which are not covered by this fact sheet.
The important thing is, again, to contact the telephone company before termination to make sure that all customer rights are protected. The notices from the telephone company will also inform the customer of his or her rights to these protections.
IV. Landlord and Tenant Situations - The Utility Services Tenants Rights Act
The Utility Service Tenants' Rights Act was designed to prevent loss of utility services and undue hardship to tenants when the service is stopped by request of a landlord or because a landlord has not paid utility bills. It applies where the landlord is the one responsible for the payment of the utility bills. It specifically applies to municipally owned utility providers. Providers regulated by the Public Utility Commission must follow similar steps to protect tenants. The utility is required to notify the tenants and the landlord of a shut-off planned because the landlord has not paid the bill. The tenants are to be provided at least 30 days written notice of the planned shut-off. The utility must also notify any local agencies that might help the tenants if there is a shut-off.
If a landlord asks a utility to shut-off service to rental housing, he or she must give a written statement to the utility. This statement must certify that either all the rented units are empty or that all the tenants have agreed, in writing, to have the service shut-off. If this procedure is not possible then the landlord must give the utility the names and addresses of the tenants who will be affected; the utility will then notify each tenant in writing of the landlord's request that service be shut-off. The utility will also post a similar notice in a common area of the building or mobile home park if the property is a mobile home park.
The tenants have the right to apply to have the services continued. The utility must reconnect the service or stop its shut-off if the tenants pay an amount equal to the last 30-day billing. The tenants will then be billed for each additional 30 days of service. Any tenants paying for the utility's service this way are entitled to withhold amount paid from the rent to the landlord.
The Current Phone Numbers for the PUC are as Follows:
Residential Terminations: 800-692-7380
General Utility Complaints: 800-782-1110
MidPenn Legal Services, (MPLS) is providing information which is appropriate for some utility termination situations. MPLS, in providing this information, is in no way agreeing or implying that it will represent individuals who us the enclosed information. Although this information is believed accurate at the time of preparation, MPLS assumes no responsibility for the accuracy of this information. Individual situations require individual analysis and you may need to consult a lawyer in your situation.