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Gas, electric shutoffs prompt lawsuit

Low-income, medically vulnerable consumers seek protection against future terminations

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The health of medically vulnerable patients was put in temporary danger after the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers shut off its supply of gas and electricity. The Center for Justice has filed a lawsuit calling for the protection of “low-income, seriously ill and/or disabled individuals,” and it aims to help connect these individuals with legal resources.

The Center for Justice has filed a lawsuit against National Grid and the State of Rhode Island’s Division of Public Utilities and Carriers on behalf of medically vulnerable consumers who experienced shutoffs of their gas supply or electricity, endangering their health, according to a press release from the center.

The Center for Justice — a nonprofit public interest law center based in Rhode Island — succeeded in appealing for immediate relief for the five named plaintiffs in “protecting them from shutoffs for now,” said Robert McCreanor, executive director and attorney for the center.

“Each of the five main plaintiffs in the lawsuit experienced at least one instance of utilities service termination in the past year,” McCreanor said, adding, “Some of them have had their utilities shut off more than once in the past three years.”

Though the center has been able to help these five individuals, others in similar situations have not had their concerns brought to court. The Center for Justice is therefore seeking a class action lawsuit to represent more people.

“There are probably 3,000 to 5,000 households in Rhode Island … that are at risk for utility shutoff and have medical conditions that entitle them to certain protections under the law,” McCreanor said.

“There are rules that govern the termination of utilities,” said Thomas Kogut, chief of information for the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers. “That’s obviously the issue that’s being discussed in the Superior Court case right now,” he said.

“Shutting customers off — terminating their service — is the last step that we take in a very long process to work with the customers, particularly if they’re having trouble paying their utility bills,” David Graves, spokesperson for the National Grid, told Rhode Island Public Radio.

The text of the suit specifically acknowledges the fact that many of the plaintiffs are “low-income, seriously ill and/or  disabled individuals.”

The Center for Justice has collaborated with the George Wiley Center, a grassroots agency that focuses on advocacy for impoverished populations, to help connect those who have experienced utility shutoffs to legal resources. The “Lifeline Project” — as the collaboration is called — provided five opportunities throughout August and September for low-income utility customers who had their gas or electric services terminated in spite of having “recorded medical protections documented” to access legal resources, said Camilo Viveiros, lead organizer of the George Wiley Center.

“These medical protections were not respected and were diverted through the Division of Public Utilities who granted permission for National Grid to terminate people’s utilities,” Viveiros said.

The lawsuit names plaintiffs including Ramon Rodriguez, “a 72-year-old man suffering from end-stage lung disease as well as diabetes and cardiac impairment” who must depend on a “24-hour electric powered oxygen machine for his survival.” Because of income and medical issues, he “has struggled to satisfy his payment obligations to … National Grid and has experienced termination of his electric utility service on at least six separate occasions in the past decade,” according to the suit’s text.

Describing a situation similar to that of other plaintiffs, the suit states that National Grid “failed to accurately inform Rodriguez of his right to seek protection from termination based on serious illness,” refused to “consider any payment arrangement proposed” by Rodriguez and failed to “provide Rodriguez with clear, timely, unambiguous and individualized pre-termination notice.” As a result, Rodriguez sought to charge his electric-powered oxygen machine plugging it into a motor vehicle battery as well as electrical outlets at a nearby laundromat and McDonald’s. Eventually, Rodriguez sought emergency medical treatment and was hospitalized for nearly two weeks.

The case will go back to court on Nov. 16, but McCreanor said he believes “it’ll take some time” for the lawsuit to be resolved. “The ultimate goal of the litigation is to bring the termination system into compliance with federal and state law and to make sure that medically vulnerable utility consumers are provided adequate notice before their services are being terminated,” he said.


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