OFFICE OF CONSUMER COUNSEL v. DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC UTILITY CONTROL et al., SC 18747
Judicial District of New Britain
Utilities; Declaratory Judgment; Whether General Statutes § 16-259a Limits the Time Period Within Which a Public Utility Company, which has Issued an Inaccurate Bill to a Customer, may Collect on Corrected Bill. In May of 2009, the office of consumer counsel (OCC) petitioned the department of public utility control (DPUC) for a declaratory ruling concerning its interpretation of General Statutes § 16-259a, the "billing statute.” Section 16-259a provides that no public utility company that "inaccurately bills a retail customer for service may bill or otherwise hold the customer financially liable for more than one year after the customer receives such service." The statute further provides that the company shall establish a payment plan that prorates the customer's arrearages "over a period of time that is no shorter than the period for which the customer is being held financially liable" and that "no payment charged to a customer under such plan shall exceed fifty per cent of the average amount that the company charged such customer for each billing period over the previous twelve month period for services received during that period." The OCC claimed that in decisions prior to 2008, the DPUC properly interpreted the billing statute as a consumer protection statute that allows public utility companies, which have billed customers inaccurately, to bill customers accurately and collect on corrected bills only within the time period specified in the billing statute, which is one year after a customer receives the service. The OCC further claimed that in decisions starting in 2008, the DPUC departed from its prior rulings and improperly construed the billing statute in a manner more favorable to public utility companies by interpreting it as providing a time limitation for discovering billing mistakes and for notifying customers of billing mistakes, but not as providing a time limitation for collecting on a corrected bill. In the present action, the DPUC issued a declaratory judgment that the billing statute prohibits a public utility company from billing or holding a customer financially liable after one year from the date of service but does not prohibit recovery or receipt of payments after that period. The OCC appealed the decision to the Superior Court. The trial court affirmed the DPUC's decision, finding that its interpretation of the statute made sense of the statutory language and captured its legislative intent. The trial court further found that the OCC's interpretation was not workable because, in cases of long periods of mistaken under-billing, a public utility company would be unduly restricted in recovering the amount due because of the payment plan parameters that the billing statute also provides. The OCC challenges this decision.