Thursday, December 19, 2013

Con Edison: PSC Will Back Our Illegal Practice of Shutoffs for Bills of Deceased Customers Instead of Opening Accounts for Household Members

One of the basic precepts of the Home Energy Fair Practices Act, enacted in 1981, was to end the practice of denying service to applicants to collect the debts of former customers.  The law clearly requires the prompt provision of service to applicants who owe no arrears for service provided to a prior account in his or her name.   The right to service upon request is a personal right that cannot be affected by the debts of others to the utility.   The bill of a deceased customer is collectible from that customer's estate, because the contract for service ends with death, through conventional measures available to creditors.  Service denial or shutoff to household members to collect the decedent's debt is not an option.  This is because the legislature declared in Public Service Law Section 30 that the continued provision of service is in the public interest and necessary for health and welfare.

Contrary to these principles, Con Edison threatens shutoff of service to surviving household members when a customer dies, instead of closing the account and opening a new one for another household member. 

Con Edison sends more than 200,000 termination notices each month, and interrupts service to more than 6,000 customer a month as a bill collection measure.  This increases the risk to life and property when people without utility service resort to less safe energy sources. See    Candle Fires: A Symptom of "Rolling Blackouts" Affecting Low Income Households.  In a recent instance, service apparently was shut off to a low-income household eligible for public assistance, the mother obtained the assistance, but the fire from candles used for light occurred before service was reconnected. See Fire Kills 3 Boys After Con Ed Shut Power Off to Collect Unpaid Bill and Mom Used CandlesOctober 26, 2013. While it is only conjecture, the practice of shutting service off to collect debts to a deceased customer might have been involved in the October situation where three children died due to a candle fire.  A news report said the bills had been in their grandmother's name. There could be other scenarios, but it may be that the grandmother had died, and they shut off the mother for not paying the grandmother's bills instead of opening a new account.  It is rumored that investigation of that situation is being conducted by the PSC's Office of Consumer Services -- the same office that has winked for years at the practice of shutting service off to collect arrears of deceased customers rather than opening new accounts for other household members.   In the past, the PSC's Office of Consumer Services Staff received its training from a utility on an incorrect interpretation of what HEFPA requires.

In the pending Con Edison rate case, the Utility Project is urging more scrutiny of termination practices, reduced reliance on termination as a bill collection measure, and improved assistance to low income customers. PULP Files Testimony in Con Edison Rate Case, Seeking Improved Low Income Rates, Reduced Service Interruption to Collect Bills, Improved Storm Cost Recovery Measures.

In response, Con Edison witnesses contend it shuts service off only as a "last resort."  Hearings will be held in the case on January 13, 2014.

PULP is requesting admissions that Con Edison has a practice of threatening shutoff of service to households where the customer has died to collect debts of the customer instead of opening a new account for a new customer in the household.  In a recent instance, where shutoff was threatened after a customer died, the applicant for service was told it would be a waste of time to complain  to the PSC -- which has the duty to adjudicate customer complaints under Public Service Law 43.2 -- because the PSC inevitably will back the utility:

Pursuant to New York Public Service Commission ("Commission") regulation 16 N.Y.C.R.R. §5.5, the Public Utility Law Project of New York, Inc. requests Con Edison within 10 days to respond to these requests for admission, for purposes of this proceeding only, of the genuineness of the attached documents and the truth of the following statements:
3. A genuine copy of section 31 of the public service law regarding the obligation to provide service to applicants and notice of denial is attached as attachment A. 
4. A genuine copy of section 11.3 of the public service commission regulations regarding the obligation to provide service to applicants and notice of denial is attached as attachment B.
5. A genuine copy of Con Edison’s response to PULP Interrogatory Number 83 in this proceeding, regarding provision of service to applicants where a deceased relative has outstanding unpaid charges, dated May 4, 2013, is attached as Attachment C.
6. In PULP Interrogatory 83, Con Edison was asked:
When a customer dies owing money to Con Edison and a relative provides proof of the customer's death and requests service in his or her name, and the relative seeking service does not owe Con Edison for service to a prior account in his or her name, is it a practice or policy of Con Edison to deny service to the applicant unless the applicant pays or makes arrangements to pay the debt owed by the deceased customer?  (Emphasis added) 
7. In its answer to PULP Interrogatory Number 83, Con Edison stated:
No.  Con Edison does not deny service to an applicant under such circumstances.  In such cases, the account is closed as of the date on the Death certificate and the representative asks for the address that the final bill should be sent to. 
7.1  A genuine copy of Con Edison’s Response to PULP Interrogatory #83 is attached as Attachment C. 
8. Con Edison witnesses on its Customer Operations Panel testified at page 59 of its prefiled rebuttal testimony, at line 7-8, in opposition to  Utility Project’s proposals for reducing reliance on service termination as a bill collection measure, that “Discontinuing service remains a last resort for the Company.”  
9. In ************, 2013 the residential customer with Con Edison account number **************  died with arrears on his account, some of which had been disputed. 
10. Con Edison representatives attempted to collect the arrears owed by the deceased customer with account number **************** from the customer’s spouse, threatening termination of service if $200 is not paid on an installment plan by December 20, 2013. The surviving spouse’ request for a copy of any written deferred payment agreement was refused. 
11. The surviving spouse of the deceased customer with account number ************ does not owe Con Edison any money from any prior account in her name. She and two children are facing very difficult financial circumstances with the reduction of household income due to her husband’s death. 
12. After receiving the shutoff threats, the spouse of the deceased customer with account number ************* went to Con Edison walk-in office at 1 Metrotech Center, Brooklyn with her spouse’s death certificate and papers to discuss the situation and establish service in her name.   
13. Con Edison was required by Commission Order to maintain customer service walk-in centers where customers and applicants of service could do business with the utility in person- Joint Petition of the Public Utility Law Project of New York, Inc., Local 1-2 of the Utility Workers of America, A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Save Our Services for a Commission Order that Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc. Cease Closing Customer Service Offices and Re-Open Customer Service Offices Already Closed. ORDER APPROVING JOINT PROPOSAL (Issued and Effective March 27, 2001).
13.1 The Order states:
Each Walk-in Center will have sufficient staffing and resources to allow customers to transact any and all normal business with the company promptly and efficiently.  Customers will be able to speak with the Con Edison representative in person.  The centers will have bilingual representative as required by the community served....
The same level of service formerly provided by the Customer Service Centers will continue to be provided at the Walk-in Centers, and customers will be able to place service orders, discuss billing disputes, negotiate payment arrangements, make bill payments, and transact other business in the same manner as they always have.
14. Con Edison in its last compliance progress report filed November 17, 2003 in Case 99-M-0851 stated that “four customer service professionals” would staff its 1 Metrotech Center location. 
15. Con Edison has not petitioned the Commission for relief or to modify the Order in Case 99-M-0851 requiring on-site customer assistance staff at its walk-in service centers.
16. The customer service center at 1 Metrotech Center, Brooklyn had no worker there to assist the applicant for service who is the spouse of the deceased customer with account number ************, and she was referred to a house telephone in the lobby. 
16.1 When she used the phone she spoke to an representative who threatened her with service termination if she did not pay the bills of her deceased spouse.
16.2   The Con Edison representative did not close the account of the deceased customer and open a new account as indicated in Con Edison’s answer to PULP IR 83.
16.3   The representative’s last name was ***************** (sp).
17. The spouse of the deceased customer with account number *-************* called Con Edison again to request service to an account in her name.  
17.1  She did not receive assistance from Con Edison in establishing an account for service in her name. 
17.2  She was told, in substance, that she could not apply for service until she had paid the arrears on her deceased spouse’s account.  
17.3 Her request for any payment plan that her deceased spouse had signed was denied.
17.4 She said she was going to contact the Department of Public Service, and was told by the Con Edison representative, in substance, not to bother, that it would be a waste of her time to call  the PSC’s Office of Consumer Services, because they would do nothing and would support the position of Con Edison and that if she did not pay the amount demanded, her service will be terminated.
17.5 The customer was not provided notice of the factual and legal basis for the denial of service. 
18.   Con Edison routinely records and transcribes conversations between its customer service representatives and applicants for service. 
18.1 The conversations summarized above were recorded and can be transcribed. 
19. The spouse of the deceased customer with account number ************ called the Department of Public Service Office of Consumer Services on December 16, 2013 and spoke to someone named ********** (sp) who would not give his last name and  did not take a complaint or take steps to address the continued provision of service, but suggested she might send an online complaint to the PSC. 
20. The Public Service Commission has never commenced a penalty proceeding against Con Edison for failing to comply with the Home Energy Fair Practices Act (HEFPA).
21. None of the customer service performance metrics in the current rate plan measure compliance with HEFPA, including
.1 meeting time limits for provision of service,
.2  timely provision of denial notices,
.3 payment to customers of amounts due them for untimely provision or reconnection of service
.4 timely reconnections after payments sufficient to restore service are made,
.5 accepting proof of identity through means other than Social Security numbers,
.6 forbearing from termination of customers with serious medical conditions that would be worsened by termination,
.7 termination of service for breach of “oral” deferred payment agreements, or
.8 the duty to proffer written deferred payment agreements prior to termination.
22. Con Edison’s answer to PULP’s Interrogatory No. 83 is false.  
22.1 Con Edison does have a practice or policy to deny service to an applicant unless the applicant pays or makes arrangements to pay the debt owed by a deceased customer.

The PSCs "performance regulation" style gives strong incentives to utilities to cut costs, so it may be economic for utilities to breach the customer protection rules when it is profitable to do so.The customer service performance standards used by the PSC (which are voluntarily agreed upon by utilities) do not measure compliance with HEFPA's consumer protection requirements, and enforcement occurs only rarely, with no financial sanction.  

Gerald A. Norlander

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