Many Philadelphians are surprised to learn that thousands of their neighbors and others in the community have been living without utility service for months or even years. The Energy Unit of Community Legal Services frequently advises and represents low-income residents who have been living without water, gas or electric service for lengthy periods of time.
The innovative ways that these individuals have devised to stay hydrated, warm and out of the dark are often the subjects of internal meetings within the Energy Unit. One client was permitted by a local business to charge her motorized wheelchair, which she could not do at home because of a loss of electric service. Another client became a self-proclaimed master of microwave cuisine during a period when she was without natural gas service, and couldn't use her stove. And far too many times, the Energy Unit advocates hear stories of low-income customers who are unable to restore their water service and must resort to collecting rainwater or purchasing gallons upon gallons of bottled water every week in order to bathe and clean their homes.
In recent years, the utility companies have also alleged increases in customers restoring their own utility service or tampering with utility meters to avoid paying for utility service. Unfortunately, in their efforts to curtail the problem, the companies have sometimes unfairly terminated service to innocent customers, many of whom seek assistance from CLS's Energy Unit. In Philadelphia, theft of utility service is both a crime and a basis for immediate termination of utility service under the Pennsylvania Public Utility Code. CLS does not handle criminal cases involving allegations of theft of utility services, but we do handle cases where a utility company has unreasonably alleged that the customer is responsible for unauthorized use of service.
The law, 66 Pa C. S. § 1406 (c), permits Philadelphia's gas and electric companies to terminate service without any prior notice and irrespective of the time of year when the utility suspects unauthorized use. This suspicion can take many forms, including an erratic fluctuation in the customer's usage, to problems with the meter itself. The companies can then refuse to restore service until all charges associated with the alleged theft are paid in full. While these may seem like reasonable measures to prevent public safety threats, too often they lead to innocent people being deprived of life-sustaining energy service unless and until they can "pay up" or prove they weren't stealing the service. It can mean that a unilateral determination of "theft" by the utility company, when such theft may or may not have actually occurred, will cause a family to go without utility service for an extended period of time.
Every year, CLS's Energy Unit is approached for representation by dozens of utility customers who have been billed for theft of utility service and who are unable to restore utility service until utility company estimates of "theft charges" are resolved. These charges — typically thousands of dollars — are not eligible for payment arrangement terms. Similarly, the customer's ability to pay a significant portion of the balance is not always enough to persuade the company to restore service. The only option for most customers is to initiate a dispute with the utility by filing a formal complaint with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC). As the complainant, the customer bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she is not responsible for the alleged theft and the accompanying charges. In order to prevail, the customer must go beyond mere assertions of his or her innocence, because, as the PUC has articulated on multiple occasions and in Taylor v. Philadelphia Gas Works, C-2009-2140196 (2011), "no matter how honest and strong [the customer's] assertions, they cannot form a basis for a finding in [the customer's] favor."
Customers who seek representation from the Energy Unit often come to us with honest and strong assertions about what did or did not happen at their homes, but because of the PUC's standard, we are often unable to assist these potential clients due to difficulties in acquiring sufficient evidence to carry the customer's burden. Utility company allegations of "theft" of utility service create a great deal of confusion for our potential clients, who don't always understand that they have not been charged with a crime, that they are not entitled to representation, and that in complaints before the PUC, they have to essentially disprove the utility's allegations.
In recent years, the Energy Unit has been able to successfully represent more than a dozen clients in cases regarding alleged theft of utility service. Our representation has required a creative approach, as the start of each new case requires us to ask ourselves, "How do we prove a negative? How do we show this customer was not stealing utility service? Can we show that someone else is responsible (such as a landlord or former tenant) for unauthorized reconnection of service or tampering with the meter?" Customers who claim to not have been using the disputed service during the period of alleged theft must document how they were getting by without the service. The customer who used her microwave for cooking instead of her gas stove must now produce credible evidence to show she didn't use gas service, which is not often simple when the relevant period stretches back years into the past. Due to limited resources, our attorneys are often forced to assume the role of investigator, which has on occasion led us out of the office and into our clients' basements and kitchens in search of good evidence. Our clients find that attorney involvement gets them a faster response from the utility company, allows them to make more effective use of the discovery process to build their cases, and puts them in a better position to negotiate settlement.
The reasons for prolonged loss of utility service are manifold, but in most of the cases that come to CLS, the customers are simply too poor to keep up with their bills and have exhausted all available payment options. In other cases, like when a utility alleges theft of service as described above, the utility has not only imposed an insurmountable financial barrier to restoration but may have done so on the basis of very little concrete evidence. In both scenarios, low-income customers languish without utility service for months and even years. At CLS, the need for our services far exceeds our capacity to serve, but our efforts have done a great deal to call attention to the issues facing low-income utility customers and, for a significant portion of the low-income community in Philadelphia, have reduced the amount of time they have to live without the basic necessities of water, gas and electricity.
Josie B. H. Pickens has been a staff attorney in the Energy Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia since 2010. Pickens represents low-income residential utility customers in a range of matters related to utility service and weatherization assistance. She helps clients preserve and restore utility service by negotiating affordable payment plans with utility companies, and by representing clients in formal complaints filed with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and informal hearings with the city's Water Revenue Bureau.