Avangrid is defending itself against PURA’s $4.48 million fine

United Illuminating Truck Recognition: Thomas Breen’s photo

Connecticut’s Avangrid utilities are fighting a $4.48 million civil penalty recently imposed on them by the state public utility regulator for saying they complied with PURA’s customer shutdowns during the pandemic.

Regulators concluded in late October that the utility’s shutdowns violated Connecticut’s notification requirements.

Avangrid, the parent company of United Illuminating, Southern Connecticut Gas and Connecticut Natural Gas, also alleges that some of the PURAs included in the proposed final decision have tarnished the company’s reputation.

Avangrid’s response was filed with PURA earlier this week after proposing an Oct. 31 infringement notice and final decision that also claimed Avangrid violated state law when its employees referred accounts to third-party collection agencies , without adequate notice to these retail customers, pursuant to an interim decision issued in April 2020.

In the April 2020 interim decision, PURA called for the establishment of a payment program for customers requesting financial assistance during the pandemic that includes an option that they could pay what they can, whenever they can. The agency says there were specific requirements for these public utilities to communicate this program to their customers – including “proactively and directly” contacting each residential, commercial or industrial customer after the first missed payment.

“The interim decision did not ban all collection activities during the time it was in force. While the interim decision expressly prohibited account closures pending further agency order, the interim decision did not prohibit referral of accounts to statutory collections; recovering payments from judgments rendered before the COVID-19 pandemic; or seeking wage garnishments against judgments received in lawsuits filed prior to the implementation of the shutdown moratorium,” read a letter filed by attorneys for Avangrid. “The Authority recognizes that the ban on such collection practices “is not supported by the clear language of the Authority’s orders,” yet throughout the draft decision, the Authority criticizes Avangrid for the collection practices mentioned above, even though there is no legal basis for doing so.”

Avangrid wants PURA to amend the October 31 decision to reflect that it has complied with PURA’s policies and state laws “to the extent that the accounts were not reported to the rating agencies until the accounts were more than 120 days past due.”

In the letter, written by attorneys for Keegan Werlin LLP, Avangrid challenges PURA’s references to wage garnishment as “one of the most egregious debt collection practices a company can engage in.”

Avangrid’s attorneys said that this particular testimony harms the company as the April 2020 decision of PURA did not prohibit wage garnishment.

“Wage garnishment is a last resort to collect payments from customers and numerous steps are taken to work with customers prior to this stage. As a result, wage garnishments do not trigger the termination provision of the COVID-19 payments program in the interim order,” the letter said. “The bill has already been sentenced to a court-ordered verdict after many months or years of unpaid utility bills. Offering COVID-19 payment programs after non-payment of a judgment would result in the collection process starting from the beginning before a lawsuit is filed. In addition, many of the wage garnishments were on dormant accounts, i.e. accounts not currently associated with Avangrid. The tentative decision (including the COVID-19 payment program) only applies to “customers” and not to “inactive accounts.” “Inactive accounts” are not Avangrid customers because they no longer have electricity or gas.”

According to Avangrid’s letter, “97 of the 203 garnishment accounts were inactive accounts that were subject to judgment before the interlocutory ruling was issued and the COVID-19 payment program became available; 102 of the 203 garnishment accounts were active accounts, all of which were directly notified of the COVID-19 payment plan in accordance with the interim order…”

In a letter dated November 14, filed by Attorney General William Tong, Tony supports PURA’s efforts to investigate the utility collection practice.

“Judgments and wage garnishments for defaulting utility accounts during the pandemic have likely caused financial hardship for consumers who are already struggling to make ends meet. Utility fee payers have been overwhelmed with rising utility fees since the pandemic began,” the letter said. “The Attorney General remains extremely concerned about rising utility fees amid economic uncertainty and generally supports PURA’s efforts to hold utility companies accountable for fair collection practices that comply with Connecticut law.”

Connecticut Consumer Advisor Claire Coleman also filed a statement expressing her support for several PURA initiatives outlined in the proposed Oct. 31 final decision, including the requirement that the state’s public utilities each Year changes to their collection practices must submit a requirement for utility companies to provide a cost-benefit analysis justifying wage garnishment as a collection tool.

PURA broke down the penalties to be paid out as follows: UI will pay $2.3 million, SCG will pay $1 million and CNG will pay $1.1 million – all going to Operation Fuel, a program for financially troubled residents.