A temporary restraining order that prevents Summit Utilities Inc. from shutting off gas service for nonpayment and bars the collection of late fees from customers while a lawsuit over billing issues is litigated has been issued by a Pulaski County Circuit Court judge.
A petition by Summit to move the case to federal court was approved Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Brian Miller, but Miller also issued a ruling upholding the temporary restraining order as he recused from the case, which now will be randomly assigned to another federal judge in the Eastern District of Arkansas.
Circuit Court Judge LaTonya Honorable issued the temporary restraining order late Monday, saying that the suit by Summit customers "demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits and a likelihood of immediate and irreparable harm that is not adequately compensable by money damages."
Summit customers "may refuse and not make payments on their Summit monthly gas bills" while the restraining order is pending. The suit seeks class-action status for all 425,000 Summit customers in the state. Honorable's ruling was made before the company asked to move the case to federal court.
In the petition, the utility said it "denies the allegations in the complaint, denies that it is liable in any way, and denies that class treatment is appropriate." Summit said the suit should be moved to U.S. District Court in Little Rock under the federal Class Action Fairness Act because the dispute involves more than $5 million in claims. Summit says its monthly revenue in Arkansas is more than $5 million.
The federal petition was assigned to Miller but he issued an order Tuesday recusing himself, writing that he has been "personally impacted ... to the point I could be called as a witness." Honorable's temporary restraining order will remain in place while the case is reassigned.
"The Temporary Restraining Order issued by the Pulaski County Circuit Court will remain in effect until it has been dissolved or a temporary injunction" is issued, Miller wrote.
Thousands of Summit customers have filed complaints over the past few months, contending the utility is overcharging and making errors in posting payments.
Summit, in a recent message to customers, said it voluntarily suspended all disconnects and stopped collecting late fees.
"In light of our transition to new customer service and billing systems, we voluntarily suspended disconnecting customers and charging late fees last fall," said the message from Chief Executive Officer Kurt Adams. "That suspension will continue through the winter. Before lifting that suspension, we will give customers ample notice."
Some customers have reported not receiving the message and Summit officials did not respond to requests Tuesday when asked how widespread the message was distributed.
Summit, based in Colorado, purchased the natural gas distribution system and customers in Arkansas from CenterPoint Energy Resources Corp. in April 2021 and completed a conversion of ratepayers to its system in December 2022.
"Since then, Summit has utterly failed to appropriately provide utility gas service to its customers in Arkansas, and moreover, has price-gouged them with substantial over-billing, and further manipulated their billing methodology," said the suit, filed March 2.
Billing complaints came in quickly after the systems conversion, with customers contending their bill were inaccurate, payments weren't posted properly and the company was not responsive in correcting the problems.
The suit says customers have complained that "their gas bills with Summit have skyrocketed by several times their normal average" since January.
The company, in its message to customers, acknowledged problems with billing systems and monthly payment notifications.
"We have heard from you that billing process errors and confusion have been perhaps your most frustrating experience with us, and the cause of your lost trust in us," Thomas' message said. "We have quickly resolved the billing issues and are confident that your bills accurately reflect your usage and the rates approved by the Public Service Commission."
Summit has attributed the increase in monthly bills to the price for natural gas in the open market, noting that it does not profit from gas costs.
Customer complaints against Summit have escalated over the past two months.
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin's office reported about 650 customer complaints had been received by Feb. 1. That number Tuesday totaled more than 2,400 complaints.
The Arkansas Public Service Commission also reports a surge in customer complaints. The commission recorded about 250 billing complaints filed by Feb. 1 and that ballooned to 637 by March 3. Another 70 customer complaints have been lodged with the commission in the past 10 days.
Summit owns natural gas distribution and transmission subsidiaries that operate in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. It operates utilities that serve customers of Arkansas Oklahoma Gas, Colorado Natural Gas, Summit Natural Gas of Maine, Summit Natural Gas of Missouri and Summit Utilities of Arkansas.