Analysis by David Sheldon
(March 4th, 2015)
On February 19th, 2015 a decision was handed down by the Court of Appeals that may have some far reaching effects on the thousands of angry utility customers and on the 34 city, township and county governments that had sought relief for their citizens from DTE’s bullying meter conversion tactics.
Discontent with this plan centered on the fact that the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) had approved a plan that did not address the issues that caused the MPSC to begin its investigation in the first place.
We will address first, what was decided in this case, and then, on a more hopeful note, what was not decided by this case and remains open for further legal proceedings.
There had been two appeals, one by Cynthia Edwards, Linda Kurtz and Leslie Panzica-Glapa, represented by attorney Kurt Koehler, and a second by Dominic and Lillian Cusumano representing themselves. Both appeals had argued that the MPSC had not done its job correctly in approving the DTE plan. The Cusumano appeal further raised the issue that DTE’s plan was an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment privacy rights of its customers. The two appeals were consolidated, i.e. treated as one case for purposes of the Court’s analysis and decision.
This appeal concerned directly the so called “opt-out case”, identified by the PSC as its U-17053 case, which the Court refers to as the “instant case”. This appeal turned indirectly on the earlier U-17000 comments case, wherein utilities, the public and staff were asked to submit their comments regarding smart meters. The earlier case was deemed to set the scope of this case.
What the Court Decided: That the Public Service Commission had done its job according to law, and that there were no adequate grounds presented in these appeals as to why its decision should be reversed by the Court. In reaching this conclusion:
- That, although the PSC made a ruling in Case U-17000 that all Michigan utilities with smart meter programs must offer an opt-out to their customers, the Court held that the PSC was under no obligation in the opt-out case (U-17053), to consider whether DTE’s plan actually addressed any of the complaints that had caused it to issue such an order.
- That, although DTE had not appealed the ruling in U-17000, the Court held that any decision concerning the type of meters to be provided utility customers was a “management prerogative” of DTE and that the MPSC had no authority to interfere with DTE’s decisions in that regard.
- That, although the PSC’s Order in U-17000 mandated an opt-out for all customers, The Court held that DTE’s decision to limit the ‘opt-out’ program to residential customers was a “management decision with which the PSC cannot interfere.”
- That, although there were numerous written complaints from professional people, including doctors, dentists and chiropractors posted to the docket in the U-17000 case, there was, according to the Court, “no evidence that any of DTE’s commercial or industrial customers had sought an opt-out option.”
- That, although the PSC had taken no evidence in the U-17000 case, issued no ruling on privacy issues and no ruling on health issues (that was compliant with the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Ac), when appellants raised the issue that the ‘opt-out’ meter being offered to opt-out customers still raised health and privacy issues, the Court held that appellants “cannot collaterally attack the ruling in Case U-17000 in the context of the instant case.”
- That, although appellants provided evidence that a federal agency had labeled smart meters a “surveillance device”, and that both federal and state governments were driving the whole smart grid program through regulations and financial incentives, the Court ruled that “Appellants have not established that the installation of either a transmitting or a non-transmitting AMI meter constitutes a search, or that even if it did, that DTE acts as an agent of the government.”
- That, although the PSC has much broader powers than just rate regulation under certain conditions:
“MCL 460.58 provides in pertinent part:
Upon complaint in writing that any rate, classification, regulation or
practice charged, made or observed by any public utility is
unjust, inaccurate, or improper, to the prejudice of the complainant,
the Commission shall proceed to investigate the matter.”
Notwithstanding the above, the Court found that “Case
U-17000 was not initiated by a ‘complaint in writing’ …” and that the
“resolutions expressing concern about AMI meters passed by
various municipalities were not filed …” with the PSC. Therefore,
the resolutions passed by nine city and county governments that
had caused the PSC to open the U-17000 case did not count and
the PSC’s authority was limited to rate regulation.
What can one say about a three judge appellate panel that renders a decision characterized by the above seven points? Perhaps it is better to say nothing and let each reader reach his or her own conclusions. But, in any case, what this panel did may not be indicative of what other three judge panels will do on other smart meter cases that come before the Court.
Will This Decision Be Published?
At present this decision has been designated as “Unpublished”. What that means is that (1) it won’t become part of any bound volume in a law library, and, more importantly (2) it will not constitute a firm precedent for courts judging future cases. It can be cited by attorneys only to suggest a course of action for other courts. It is not binding precedent for any future case.
There are, however, requests to the Court from both DTE and from MPSC that this case should be published because it should become a firm precedent for all the other smart meter cases that are already pending. We understand that an attempt will be made by one or both of the parties who lost this case to discourage the Court from publishing, so as to limit the damage from this case.
Can This Judgment Be Appealed?
Appeal is possible, both to the Michigan Supreme Court and, where federal questions are involved, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Neither of these courts, however, is obliged to hear any appeal unless it chooses to do so. These courts are very selective in picking cases to review and tend to make these decisions, not on the basis of achieving a just outcome for the particular parties, but based on maintaining consistency in the law or setting firm guidelines for the lower courts to use in future cases.
What This Court Did NOT Decide:
This Court did not approve DTE’s opt-out plan as such. All that it did was address whether the MPSC did its job within the limits of its authority in reviewing and approving the DTE opt-out plan. It did not make the DTE plan the law of the land. Let us examine why that is so:
- For a court to find that MPSC has no authority to interfere with DTE’s “management prerogatives” is really a statement about the powers and responsibilities of the MPSC. Such a finding does not preclude the possibility that a court of general jurisdiction, i.e. one of the state’s circuit courts, might have the authority found lacking in the MPSC.
- There are forms of legal action, both in tort law and in contract law, that cannot be heard by the MPSC but could be heard in one of the state’s circuit courts.
- With regard to the Fourth Amendment privacy argument, all that the Court found was that these particular appellants had not met their burden to prove that smart meters are a surveillance device nor met their burden to show that the utility was acting as an agent of the government. These findings, even if published, do not preclude other parties or appellants in future cases from proving both of these points.
- There exists the possibility of getting from a circuit court a declaratory judgment that would define the rights of a utility customer, an injunction to enforce those rights, and an award of money damages for any harm that has been suffered by a party.
We can win some of the battles ahead!!!
What we desperately need is:
- One or more plaintiffs willing to sue DTE in one of the state’s circuit courts. A multi-plaintiff suit would probably be best. Object would be to get a declaratory judgment outlining the rights of the utility customer, an injunction to protect those rights, and money damages for any harm suffered.
- People willing to help us with the legal costs involved by donating money or time.
PLEASE DONATE! We need to raise some serious money to pay legal fees and witness fees – both for circuit court actions and for administrative actions before MPSC.