Analysis of the Michigan Court of Appeals Decision
May 24th, 2017
by David Sheldon*
(This case illustrates the difficulties of fighting a utility in court over smart meters, particularly when there is
perceived to be judicial bias in our courts in favor of
large corporations. It is presented at this time in view
of the recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear this case and to underscore the necessity for our present efforts to secure legislation to protect utility customers.)
NATURE OF THE APPEAL: The defendant’s in this case, Ralph and Donna Stenman, having experienced some health symptoms from installation of a DTE smart meter, and concerned about further damage to their health and loss of privacy, strenuously objected to the installation of the smart meter, asking for return of their analog meter. When DTE ignored their pleas, the couple went ahead and replaced the smart meter with an analog meter they had purchased. DTE brought suit against them, asking the Oakland County Circuit Court for a “summary judgment” against the couple. A court can legally make a summary judgment when there are ‘no material issues of fact’ that might require a trial to resolve.
The Stenmans interviewed several attorneys and were unable to find one willing to take on DTE. Accordingly they represented themselves in the original proceeding. They requested a jury trial. Circuit Judge Rudy Nichols granted the summary judgment, so that the Stenmans were denied any kind of trial or opportunity to develop their defense. An appeal was taken to the Michigan Court of Appeals, File No 321203, over the fact they had been denied a trial. The Stenmans again filed their own appellate brief. A reply brief and oral argument were presented for them by attorney Robert Igrasin. The appeals court, judges Patrick M. Meter, Mark J. Cavanagh and Kurtis T. Wilder, issued an opinion and order in favor of DTE on July 14th, 2015 and awarded DTE its costs and decided to publish their decision, which is now in all the law libraries as a precedent for similar cases in the future.
(1) STENMAN ARGUMENT ON METER DEFINITION – DISMISSED:
The Opinion of the Court: “In the trial court and on appeal, defendants assert that a “meter” installed by a regulated public utility may only perform the functions that it is authorized by law to perform, arguing that the smart meter installed by plaintiff violated the “lawful definition of meter’ ” because it was capable of performing functions other than measuring electricity use. However, based on the plain language of the definition of “meter” in R 460.3102(g), there is no indication that electricity-measuring devices that have radio transmitters or other additional capabilities do not constitute “meters.” … The mere fact that the definition does not expressly state that a meter with a radio transmitter still constitutes a meter does not indicate that a meter with such a feature is not included under the definition. … Accordingly, we conclude that reasonable minds could not differ in finding that the smart meter installed by plaintiff qualified as a “meter.”7
Comment: The Court is saying, in effect, that the definition of ‘meter’ that is in the statute does not preclude the forced installation of any device by a monopoly utility so long as that device is called a ‘meter’ and actually does, among other things, measure electricity consumed. There is, therefore, potentially no limit on what could be forcibly installed on a private home.
(2) STENMAN ARGUMENT THAT SMART METERS WERE NEVER AUTHORIZED AS A CONDITION FOR RECEIVING ELECTRICAL SERVICE – DISMISSED:
The Opinion of the Court: “First, there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding whether the smart meter installed by plaintiff was lawful under the definition of “meter” applicable to the relevant administrative rules and tariff. Plaintiff is a public utility that is regulated by the MPSC. With regard to the regulation of public utilities, MCL 460.6(1) provides:
“The [MPSC] is vested with complete power and jurisdiction to regulate all public utilities in the state except a municipally owned utility, the owner of a renewable resource power production facility as provided in [MCL460.6d], and except as otherwise restricted by law. The [MPSC] is vested with the power and jurisdiction to regulate all rates, fares, fees, charges, services, rules, conditions of service, and all other matters pertaining to the formation, operation, or direction of public utilities. The [MPSC] is further granted the power and jurisdiction to hear and pass upon all matters pertaining to, necessary, or incident to the regulation of public utilities, including electric light and power companies, whether private, corporate, or cooperative . . . . [Emphasis added.]”
Comment: The court is arguing, in effect, that smart meters are legal as a mandatory condition for receiving electrical service because the MPSC made them so. But the panel in this case is conveniently ignoring a ruling of a different panel of the same appeals court, on February 19th, 2015, only five months earlier. In the earlier (unpublished) case, File No. 316728, consolidated appellants Kurtz, Edwards and Cusumano had argued that MPSC had erred in authorizing a type of smart meter “opt-out meter” that did not address public concerns about privacy and health. Appellants in that case had argued the MPSC had erred in authorizing this opt-out meter without allowing any evidence to be admitted concerning privacy and health issues. This was the court’s answer to that:
“PSC has only the authority granted to it by statute. The PSC has broad authority to regulate rates for public utilities, but that authority does not include the power to make management decisions for utilities. … Apellants correctly point out that the PSC has no statutory authority to enable DTE to require all customers to accept an AMI meter, even if some customers choose to opt-out of the AMI program. However, no such statute exists because the decision regarding what type of equipment to deploy can only be described as a management prerogative.”
It seems to this writer that the Michigan Court of Appeals cannot have it both ways. If the earlier panel was correct that the MPSC had no jurisdiction over meter type and hence no obligation to allow evidence on privacy or health issues before approving DTE’s “opt-out” program, then the Stenman court cannot also be correct in ruling that DTE’s meter had been established as a lawful condition for receiving electrical service. Yet the Stenman court made no reference to the earlier decision, even though one of its judges had also been on the earlier panel. When one panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals overrules an earlier panel on an issue, there is a procedure for resolving the disagreement – a procedure not followed in this case.
(3) STENMAN OBJECTIONS BASED ON PRIVACY & HEALTH – DISMISSED:
Opinion of the Court: “Second, the trial court properly concluded that defendants failed to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact as to whether their privacy and health-related concerns constituted valid affirmative defenses that excused or justified their actions related to the smart meter … In the trial court, defendants failed to provide any authority (emphasis added) in support of their claim that their privacy and health-related concerns constituted valid affirmative defenses to their violations of the relevant statutes, regulations, and tariff. … “
Comment: The Court is saying, in effect, that it is not enough for a home owner to present evidence that a utility’s actions are in fact endangering privacy or health, but that these defendants, who were without an attorney in the original court, must also cite prior court precedents where it had previously been established that privacy or health concerns could be a valid reason for opposing a utility installation. This despite the fact that the utility (plaintiff) had not cited any court precedent that privacy and health concerns were NOT a valid basis for objecting to an installation. Nor did this court cite any precedent to establish that privacy or health concerns were irrelevant to a utility installation. Where there is no precedent for a legal principle a case is generally termed a “case of first impression” and does call for analysis, but none was done by this court.
“Furthermore, even if we assume, arguendo, that defendants’ privacy or health-related concerns constitute valid defenses to their failure to comply with the relevant rules and tariff provisions, defendants failed to establish the factual bases of those defenses. “ The party asserting an affirmative defense has the burden of presenting evidence to support it.” …
“In support of their privacy defense, defendants proffered a report prepared by the National Institute of Standards and Technology entitled Guidelines for Smart Grid Cyber Security: Vol. 2, Privacy and the Smart Grid (NISTIR 7628) (August 2010). Even assuming that this report constituted admissible evidence, see MCR 2.116(G)(6), this document does not demonstrate that the smart meter installed on defendants’ property posed an actual risk to defendants’ privacy; the report generally discussed the possibility of privacy risks related to smart meters and provided recommendations for entities participating in a smart grid. …
“In support of their health-related defense, defendants provided the affidavit of Dr. Hillman, discussing the health of a three–year -old child not involved in the instant case. The affidavit does not establish that the smart meter installed at defendants’ home operated in a similar fashion, emitted the same level of “electricity [that] permeat[ed] the house,” or caused similar health effects , and thus fails to be competent evidence that the smart meter installed on defendants’ property posed a risk to defendants’ health. Again, considering the evidence that was before the trial court, we conclude that reasonable minds could not differ in holding that defendants failed to provide a factual basis for their privacy and health -related defenses and, as a result, failed to demonstrate that a genuine issue of material fact exists with regard to the viability of those defenses.
Comment: The court is saying that it is never enough to show proof that a thing has harmed others or is generally acknowledged by experts to cause a risk of harm wherever installed. The court is saying that the Stenmans must wait until their health has actually been damaged or their private information has actually been sold to third parties before they can legally object to an installation (of a device never authorized by any statute and never mandated as a condition of service by our own MPSC)
(4) STENMAN OBJECTIONS BASED ON FOURTH AMENDMENT – DISMISSED:
Opinion of the Court: “Finally, defendants argue that plaintiff’s installation of a smart meter on their home constituted a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. We disagree. … The United States and Michigan Constitutions guarantee every person’s right to be free from unreasonable searches. US Const, Am IV; Const 1963, art 1, § 11. However, in order for Fourth Amendment protections to apply, the government must perform a search. “[T]he Fourth Amendment proscribes only government action and is not applicable to a search or seizure, even an unreasonable one, conducted by a private person not acting as an agent of the government or with the participation or knowledge of any government official.” … defendants have failed to establish that plaintiff’s installation of smart meters constitutes governmental action for Fourth Amendment purposes. Even if the state and federal governments have advocated or incentivized, as a matter of public policy, the use of smart meters, there is no indication that the government controls the operations of plaintiff, an investor-owned electric utility, or that plaintiff acts as an agent of the state or federal governments. Accordingly, we reject defendants’ claim that plaintiff’s installation of a smart meter violated their Fourth Amendment rights.”
Comment: There were ample citations in the Stenman case to situations where the government aided and abetted a private actor to commit an action later held to be a Fourth Amendment violation. In this case the federal government provided 50% of the initial funding for DTE smart meters and the MPSC mandated Michigan utilities to participate in a “Smart Meter Collaborative” to plan for the implementation of smart meters in Michigan. This court simply did not want to go there.
SUBSEQUENT ACTIONS: Application was made for the Stenmans by attorney Don Keskey to the Michigan Supreme Court to hear an appeal, and that application denied on March 8, 2016. Application was made, also by Don Keskey, to the U.S. Supreme Court for a Writ of Certiorari and denied by that court on May 4, 2017.
The legal brief filed by the Stenmans can be found HERE.
The decision of the Michigan Court of Appeals on this case can be found HERE.
The conflicting decision of the Michigan Court of Appeals on the earlier, Kurtz, Edwards and Cusumano consolidated appeals can be found HERE.
CONCLUSION: In view of this case, other utility customers wishing to fight their utility in court over a smart meter installation will have a hard road to travel. That doesn’t mean it is impossible, but any future case will need to distinguish itself from this case by rigorous presentation of evidence with the first filing or first response or by the time of a first motion hearing. A case in which actual harm, and not only hypothetical harm, can be shown conclusively, would have a distinct advantage. All that happened in this case also illustrates the importance of securing a legislative solution, as many of us are attempting to do now with Michigan House Bill 4220, sponsored by Representative Gary Glenn with 17 cosponsors.
Text of the Glenn bill as originally introduced can be found HERE. A subsequent admendment was approved in committee that excluded water utilities from the bill.
* David Sheldon is not an attorney but has represented himself successfully in both federal and state courts.