Thursday, April 29, 2010

Citing Delays, PULP Asks for Review of PSC Complaint Handling Process

PULP has asked for a review of the PSC process for deciding utility customer complaints, citing delays in some cases of more than a decade. The PSC consumer complaint process provides for an initial decision by the PSC's Office of Consumer Services, an informal review or hearing, and a final decision by the Commission, usually through a delegated employee. After a final decision is issued, judicial review is available under CPLR Article 78, though the overwhelming number of utility customer complaints begin and end at the PSC.

In a letter sent this week to PSC Chairman Garry A. Brown, PULP pointed out that neither residential nor nonresidential customers are receiving timely action on meritorious complaints. PULP pointed to specific residential and nonresidential customer complaints that languish, undecided, and an assertion of the PSC that resource limitations and priorities in allocation of agency resources mean that complaints cannot be promptly decided.

PULP cited as an example a case involving a dispute over charges due to an allegedly defective Con Edison meter for service to a condominium building. The customer contended that the demand meter implausibly recorded more usage than the total load of the building, even assuming every appliance was on at the same time. Although the case involves no novel issues, it has been pending for more than a decade. PULP observed:
There is a growing perception that when a customer lodges a meritorious complaint and the provider of utility service balks, the response of the OCS and the Commission is a retreat into stasis: rather than decide a matter of significance adverse to the utility, all too often work on the case halts and no decision is issued.

Justice delayed is justice denied
In some situations, the New York PSC has explicitly refused to decide whether providers of utility service acted contrary to law. PULP stated:
There is something terribly amiss with Commission complaint handling procedures when top supervisory staff of the Informal Hearing Unit summarily refuse to perform their duties mandated under Public Service Law and Commission regulations and declare they will not decide if a provider of utility service acted unlawfully.
In effect, the absence of timely PSC decisions allows utility actions challenged by customers to go unreviewed for years.

Administrative agencies under the sway of deregulation fads may subtly morph their statutory complaint adjudication systems into softer mediation services. In this fashion, practical oversight of utilities through correction in the complaint process is diminished by avoiding, abdicating, or minimizing the statutory role of an administrative decider of disputes between utilities and customers. For example, the FCC simply gives up and closes the case when a customer complaint is rejected by a wireless provider, rather than decide the issues raised by the complaint. See GAO Report: Nowhere to Turn -- FCC Not Protecting Wireless Consumers, PULP Network, Dec. 14, 2009.

PULP stated that as a result of the practical unavailability of any timely check on the utilities through the New York PSC customer complaint process, "[t]he Commission, through its failure to timely review and decide the validity of disputed utility actions has created, in effect, a de facto customer service regime of total deregulation."

The letter asks for a full review of the PSC complaint process, to identify causes and remedies for the delays.

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