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Karnes v. Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

April 23, 2019

JAMES KARNES, JR., Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
RHODE ISLAND DIVISION OF PUBLIC UTILITIES AND CARRIERS; and NATIONAL GRID, Defendants-Appellees.

          For Plaintiff: James Karnes, Jr. (pro se)

          For Defendant: John P. McCoy, Esq.; Casey J. Lee, Esq.

          DECISION

          CARNES, J.

         Before the Court is an appeal by Appellant James Karnes, Jr. (Appellant) of an order (Order) of the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (Division) issued on August 31, 2018, finding Appellant responsible for a past due balance of $1069.88 for utility service from National Grid. Appellant asks this Court to reverse the Division's Order. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         This appeal arose from a dispute for a past due balance for utility service provided to Appellant by National Grid. After being advised that due to an error National Grid had transferred utility service at Appellant's residence into an unrelated company's name, Appellant was told by National Grid that he was responsible for the unpaid balance of $1069.88 due for the time period of August 5, 2017 until May 10, 2018.

         Beginning on October 28, 1996 until August 8, 2017, Appellant had an open account with National Grid for electric service provided to his residence located at 2 Saint Theresa Avenue in Bristol, Rhode Island. (Evidentiary Hr'g Tr. (Hr'g Tr.) at 6:7-10; 8:4-7.) "On August 4, 2017 National Grid received a call from Seterus, Inc. to connect service on August 5, 2017 at 2 Saint Theresa Avenue in Warren, RI but National Grid disconnected [Appellant's] service at 2 Saint Theresa Avenue in Bristol, RI and placed service under Seterus, Inc." (Division's Informal Review Decision at 4.) While National Grid asserts that bills in Seterus, Inc.'s name were mailed to Appellant's address in Bristol during this period of time, Appellant contends he did not receive any bills during the period at issue. (Hr'g Tr. at 10:9-15; 12:3-12.) It is undisputed that Appellant did not reach out to National Grid about the fact that he was no longer receiving bills from National Grid for utility service. Id. at 18:19-23.

         On May 10, 2018, National Grid discovered the billing error after conducting a field visit at 2 St. Theresa Avenue in Bristol, Rhode Island "because the bills issued under that company name were not being paid." Id. at 8:20-22. Upon visiting the address, National Grid discovered Appellant was living, and had been living, at that address for twenty-nine years, and that National Grid had inadvertently transferred service out of Appellant's name and into Seterus, Inc.'s name. Id. at 8:22-9:2. As a result of this finding, National Grid transferred the account back into Appellant's name and back billed Appellant for the actual reads from the meter for that address for the time period during which it had accidentally been billing Seterus, Inc. instead of Appellant. Id. at 9:15-17; 10:3-15. The amount National Grid asserts it is owed is $1069.88, and Appellant does not dispute that amount except to say that he is not responsible for its payment.

         After Appellant was notified that National Grid intended to terminate his utility service due to non-payment, he asked that the Division conduct an "Informal Review" as provided under Rule VI(1)(A) of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission's Rules and Regulations Governing the Termination of Residential Electric, Gas and Water Utility Service. The Division conducted the Informal Review on July 10, 2018, and issued a written decision. Appellant then requested an evidentiary hearing before a hearing officer, which took place on August 22, 2018. The hearing officer subsequently issued the Order on August 31, 2018, and Appellant timely appealed that Order to this Court on September 5, 2018.

         II Standard of Review

         Section 42-35-15(a) provides that "[a]ny person . . . who has exhausted all administrative remedies available to him or her within the agency, and who is aggrieved by a final order in a contested case is entitled to judicial review." When reviewing an agency decision, "[t]he court shall not substitute its judgment for that of the agency as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact." Sec. 42-35-15(g). The court may only:

"reverse or modify the decision if the substantial rights of the appellant have been prejudiced because the administrative findings, inferences, ...

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