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Suit against Summit withdrawn for now

AG to pursue utility complaints with Public Service Commission by Andrew Moreau | March 23, 2023 at 12:00 a.m.

The federal lawsuit contending Summit Utilities Inc. overcharged customers and mismanaged billing practices was voluntarily dismissed Tuesday and the issue instead will be moved to the Arkansas Public Service Commission for review.

The Public Service Commission (PSC) is the proper venue to consider the issues, according to Little Rock attorney Scott Poynter, who filed the suit on behalf of two Pulaski County ratepayers but was seeking class-action status for all 425,000 Summit customers in Arkansas.

"We voluntarily dismissed our case today in order to satisfy the Primary Jurisdiction Doctrine, which provides the Public Service Commission is entitled to the first opportunity to address our clients' claims," Poynter said Tuesday. "So our next move is to file proper papers to get our claims before the commission."

That move supports Attorney General Tim Griffin's petition last week asking the commission to open immediate investigations to examine Summit's billing and gas-purchasing practices.

"We anticipate our claims and the AG's motion filed last week will benefit one another," Poynter said. "We look forward to working quickly and deliberately with the PSC and the Office of the Attorney General for the benefit of all of our clients."

More than 3,000 customer complaints against Summit have been filed with the PSC and Griffin's and Poynter's offices this year.

"It's the PSC's job to get to the bottom of this," Griffin said at a news conference last week announcing his petition to the PSC.

In the lawsuit, Summit was under a temporary restraining order to halt collection of late fees and prevent customer disconnects. The company says it voluntarily stopped charging late fees and disconnecting customers in November.

Meanwhile, the utility said in a news released Tuesday it "will continue that suspension for the time being" but is encouraging customers to pay their bills or call customer service for assistance with payments.

After Griffin's petition was filed Thursday, a PSC spokesman said the regulatory agency would follow its standard review practice -- staff would get an initial opportunity to examine the complaints and make recommendations before the issue goes to the three commissioners for consideration.

Poynter noted the lawsuit could be revived if the PSC fails to act.

"If the PSC decides not to take this opportunity to address our claims, then we are permitted to refile our class-action lawsuit," he said.

Summit purchased the natural-gas assets, distribution system and customers in Arkansas from CenterPoint Energy Resources Inc. in 2021. Summit converted ratepayers to the utility's billing and customer service systems in November 2022.

Customer complaints spiked soon after the conversion.

"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 lawsuit filed by Poynter earlier this month.

Griffin has called on the PSC to open two investigations. One would examine the utility's gas-purchasing process, under which state law mandates the company buy gas "from the lowest or most advantageous market." The second investigation should examine billing procedures, Griffin said.

Summit says it does not profit from the purchase of natural gas on the open market and charges customers only what the company pays.

"As a regulated utility, Summit does not profit from the cost of natural gas, and the Arkansas Public Service Commission reviews our gas purchasing plans and cost of gas filings annually," Lizzy Reinholt, Summit's senior vice president of corporate affairs, said in the statement Tuesday. "In addition, we know that customers are struggling with high energy costs this winter and expect a significant decrease in the cost of gas when we make our next required cost of gas filing at the end of this month."

Company officials also have pointed out that Summit has added 50 customer service staffers to reduce call-wait times for customers.

In the news release, Summit announced it has set up a website, summitcares.com, to provide customers with resources and tips to manage their heating bills.

Print Headline: Suit against Summit withdrawn for now


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