Kent County Superior Court
For Plaintiff: Stephen Sulyma, pro se
For Defendant: John P. McCoy, Esq. Casey J. Lee, Esq.
This matter is before the Court on appeal by Stephen Sulyma (customer or Sulyma) from a final order in a contested case heard by the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (the Division or DPUC). Opposing Sulyma below, and in this appeal, is National Grid (the Utility), the utility providing electrical service to Sulyma. Jurisdiction is established under the Administrative Procedures Act, G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15 (judicial review of contested cases).
Facts and Travel
The issues presented in this appeal involve application of the Rules and Regulations Governing the Termination of Residential Electric, Gas and Water Utility Service (the Termination Rules). These Termination Rules, promulgated by the Division, govern, inter alia, termination of residential service for gas and electricity for customers who fail to pay an overdue bill because of financial hardship or other qualifying reasons. Financial hardship is defined in the Termination Rules as covering those families having a combined gross income equal to or less than sixty (60) percent of the Rhode Island median income, or those who are eligible for LIHEAP (the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program). Neither DPUC nor the Utility questioned Sulyma's eligibility as a result of financial hardship for payment programs offered under the Termination Rules.
After the Utility notified Sulyma of its intention to terminate his electric utility service, he sought an informal review by the Division of his dispute with the Utility over the terms of a payment plan relative to customer's liability for arrearages which were past due. In the informal review, the Division initially determines what payment plan is appropriate for the customer by choosing from an array of payment plans set forth in the Termination Rules which are available to residential customers. There are at least eight payment plans prescribed under the Termination Rules for customers who fall into the category of financial hardship. The terms of the plans vary according to whether or not the customer's service has been terminated and whether the customer has defaulted on prior plans.
In this instance, Sulyma was dissatisfied with the payment plan prescribed following the informal review. Accordingly, he requested a full evidentiary hearing before a hearing officer designated by the Division, a procedure to which the customer is entitled under the Termination Rules, and which was conducted on September 24, 2015. The Court was provided with a certified copy of the record pertaining to this hearing, including a transcript, and the Report and Order prepared by the hearing officer, which was approved by the Administrator of the DPUC on October 5, 2015. The customer seeks review of this Report and Order in the Superior Court, leading to the instant appeal.
Following the full evidentiary hearing, the hearing officer determined that the customer qualified for Protected Status Customer Step P-3 Payment Plan (the Plan). This Plan requires the customer to make a down payment equal to 25% of the customer's outstanding unpaid utility balance. At the time, the customer's outstanding unpaid balance was $2043.49. Accordingly, the down payment for Sulyma would be $510.85. Sulyma indicated at the hearing that he was unable to make the down payment provided in the Plan in one lump sum due to his recent reemployment, but also described how he would have sufficient cash flow to be able to meet the down payment if given an opportunity to pay that amount in a series of periodic payments.
Under the Plan, Sulyma, in addition to the down payment, would be required to pay twelve monthly installments of $127.72 for the remaining arrearage. This monthly arrearage payment is in addition to payments for current monthly usage, which, when included in the case of Sulyma, would result in a total estimated monthly payment of $247.72. Failure to make the down payment or required monthly arrearage payments timely allows the Utility to terminate service within ten business days following the default. Sulyma testified that, although he had been previously unemployed, he is currently employed. Notwithstanding his current employment, Sulyma further indicated that he was not presently able to make the required 25% down payment, but, given a reasonable amount of time, he would be able to make the down payment as his continuing employment income would give him the ability to pay the total estimated monthly payments over a twelve-month period.
The Division determined that the evidence showed five previous defaults under prior-established payment plans. In the Division's opinion, the previous defaults rendered Sulyma eligible only for the Step 3 Payment Plan. Although Sulyma believes he should be entitled to arrearage forgiveness, his previous default under a Henry Shelton Act Arrearage Forgiveness Plan renders him ineligible for any further arrearage forgiveness under that statute. See G.L. 1956 § 39-2-1(d)(1). Sulyma, in essence, admits that he has previously defaulted, but asks DPUC to nonetheless modify the terms of his repayment plan because of his recent unemployment and single-parent status. According to Sulyma, he does not dispute the current arrearage, but simply requires a modification of the Plan to extend the period of time for payment in light of his current limited cash flow. DPUC stated that, as a result of previous defaults, its ...