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UPDATE ON MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS DECISIONS

by Vigilant Dave
July 26th, 2015

Justice iconsThis past week we saw first an unfortunate decision in the Sheldon smart meter appeal. That was the case in which the Court had found in April of 2012 that a Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) decision on smart meters did not have any substantial factual support. The Court had ordered the MPSC to do the case over and this time to consider all aspects of smart meters, including the “risks and burdens” on customers and the ”experience in other states.” But the Commission chose to defy the court’s order and consider only the effect of smart meters on utility rates. The Commission also chose to exclude the very interveners who could have presented evidence on the issues the appeals court wanted considered.

David Sheldon brought an appeal as one of the excluded interveners, essentially arguing that the Commission was in contempt of court. A panel of three judges heard the case, which was not the panel that had earlier ordered the Commission to consider all the aspects. This panel actually found no problem with the Commission’s conduct! They failed, in their written opinion and order, to state any logical basis for finding that the Commission had carried out the earlier order and should not be found in contempt.

That decision may be read here.

A second decision this week was on a Motion for Reconsideration filed by the MPSC on the Consumers Energy case. This was the case, known as Rison et al, filed by a group of 16 Consumers customers from the Muskegon area. The Commission had been ordered back in May to redo a contested case involving their decision to approve funding and an opt-out plan for Consumers Energy customers. The scope of the remand was  limited to rate issues, with no indication that the Commission need consider health or privacy concerns. And no requirement that the Commission need allow the Consumers customers who brought this case to participate in the remand hearings.

The MPSC wanted the Court to reverse that decision on grounds they had already thoroughly examined smart meter issues and there was no need for further inquiry. In this matter the majority of the justices simply denied the motion, so that the earlier order remained in effect and the majority made it clear that the scope of the case would remain limited as earlier ordered.

But this time something happened that was not business as usual. Judge O’Connell, who had participated in that earlier decision, filed a dissenting opinion in which he actually expressed his view that the scope of the earlier order should be expanded to specifically include health and privacy issues. He stated that due process requires that customers who have smart meter concerns have a forum in which to present evidence to back up their concerns. He also questioned the justice of charging opt-out fees, questioned the objectivity of the MPSC, questioned the propriety of the Attorney General representing both sides in a contested case and opined that it was time for the Michigan Supreme Court to get involved. It must be stressed this was a dissenting opinion and in no way was it the order of the court. But at least it gives us some reason for hope that we are beginning to change minds.

 That colorful dissenting opinion can be read here.

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Analysis by David Sheldon
(July 19th, 2015)

On July 15th, 2015, a decision was handed down by the Michigan Court of Appeals that, if not appealed, will severely constrain the rights of all Michigan utility customers. This article is written, in part, as a response to an inaccurate and misleading article published a few days ago on another smart meter website. Sadly that article unfairly characterized the efforts of a couple to defend themselves against utility bullying and implied that, if only they had hired a good lawyer, the outcome would have been different.

We know there are thousands of you, in southeastern Michigan alone, who have resisted the forced installation of a “smart” electric meter. Many of you have locked your meter enclosures or otherwise limited access by utility installers bent on replacing your traditional meters.

Thousands of others who have the new smart meters are now suffering serious health effects that limit them in the use and enjoyment of their homes. The universal experience has been that, once a smart meter is installed, the utility will not remove it for any reason. At least 20 families that we know of have found it necessary to resort to self help in order to rid themselves of an intrusive and life limiting device.

Such was the case for Ralph and Donna Stenman of Farmington Hills. In early 2012, after pleading with DTE to remove a smart meter that was making Donna ill, the couple finally resorted to removing the offending device themselves and replacing it with an industry standard calibrated analog meter. The smart meter itself was in no way tampered with. It was simply removed from the meter housing (owned by the homeowner) and safely returned to DTE.

The utility objected that the meter the couple installed was not an approved device. The couple responded that DTE was welcome to replace it at any time with an analog meter of their own specifications. The utility responded with threats and repeated attempts to re-install the smart meter. The Stenmans believed they had no choice but to notify the utility that any access to their meter would have to be by appointment only and under supervised conditions. The result was that DTE sued the Stenmans seeking, among other things, an injunction that would command the couple to allow DTE installers to enter upon their property for the purpose of re-installing the smart meter.

The lawsuit was heard by Oakland Circuit Judge Rudy Nichols in the fall of 2012. The couple wound up representing themselves after approaching a number of attorneys who refused to take the case, stating either that it was hopeless to go up against a utility or that DTE would bankrupt them if they took the case. A preliminary hearing was scheduled with DTE asking for a summary judgment.

In preparation for that hearing much research was done on the law to determine what sort of evidence the couple would need. Michigan Stop Smart Meters provided assistance. The couple filed a formal response to the suit, explaining why the smart meter had to be removed, and providing an affidavit from a doctor that an identical smart meter installed on another home had caused severe illness. Also presented was a government document explaining how these meters would invade privacy and that they should be installed only with consent of the homeowner. The couple fully expected that this preliminary evidence would be enough that the judge would schedule a trial. Instead, in December of 2012, the judge granted DTE a summary judgment with no opportunity for the couple to present any further evidence.

Judge Nichols stated in his decision that the Stenmans had not met their burden to present evidence showing that, if a trial were held, they had a reasonable chance to prevail. Yet another Oakland Circuit Judge had heard an identical lawsuit by DTE against another couple a month earlier, been presented with the identical evidence, and found that evidence sufficient to warrant scheduling a trial. Judge Nichols also ignored the fact that DTE had not presented any evidence that their smart device had ever been authorized by either the legislature or the Michigan Public Service Commission. The law is clear that a summary judgment is only legal when there are no material facts in controversy. The law is also clear that any ambiguity in the factual situation must be resolved in favor of the non moving party – in this case the Stenmans. Judge Nichols decision was clearly contrary to law.

An appeal was filed. The Stenmans filed their appeal brief without benefit of an attorney. The wheels of justice turn slowly. It took from December of 2012 until June of 2015 for oral argument to be scheduled. The Stenmans finally found an attorney to represent them at the oral argument. Some of you had the opportunity to hear that.

On July 15th a decision was finally issued that upheld Judge Nichols’ decision in all respects and provided no relief to the Stenmans. In reaching this conclusion the Court of Appeals found that:

  1. That even though the burden of proving the necessary elements of a complaint always (by law) falls on the plaintiff, that burden can be cast, when convenient, upon the defendant.
  2. That, although DTE had never presented any evidence, or even an assertion, that their smart meters were lawful, these meters were nonetheless lawful.
  3. That, even though the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) had no jurisdiction to tell a privately owned utility what kind of meters to use(*), the MPSC nevertheless had the authority to authorize the new smart meters, and the utility could rely on that authority to force installation of the new meters.
  4. That, even though a private utility is required to have its rules and conditions of service approved by the MPSC, and no such approval had actually been given for the utility to make smart meters a condition of service, that the utility could, nonetheless, mandate smart meters.
  5. That, even though the MPSC has consistently refused to hold any evidentiary hearings on the possible health dangers of smart meters, they were entitled to conclude, as a matter of law, that health effects of smart meters are negligible.
  6. That, even though the “opt-out” plan offered by DTE allows nobody to avoid having a smart meter and was not even an available plan when the Stenmans resorted to self help, this plan is cited as one of the reasons Judge Nichols was justified in his ruling.
  7. That even though there is no practical alternative to DTE service for most people in southeastern Michigan, nonetheless being a DTE customer is “voluntary”.
  8. That even though evidence was provided the court that an identical smart meter had made a child severely ill, this did not constitute evidence that it might endanger the lives of an elderly couple.
  9. That even though the issue of the “opt-out” plan being an opt-out in name only was fully discussed in the Stenmans’ original pleadings before Judge Nichols, the Court of Appeals finds that this issue was not raised in the trial court.
  10. That, although the Stenmans provided an official publication of the U.S. government in which the National Institute for Standards and Technology concluded that smart meters will violate the privacy of homeowners wherever they are installed, the Court of Appeals finds that such concerns with privacy are merely “conjectural and hypothetical”, and that there has been no showing of “actual or imminent harm”. Therefore the Stenmans “have no standing” to raise the Fourth Amendment issue.

Whether one reaches this point fully represented by an attorney or reaches it through one’s own efforts makes little difference in the end.

What we see in this Appeals Court decision is not respect for or observance of law. What we see is a politically motivated decision based on the idea that nothing should get in the way of the smart grid agenda. Or that nothing should get in the way of powerful interest groups.

This is not to say that our legal system is hopeless or that we shouldn’t try to defend our rights through lawful means. Not every panel of the Court of Appeals will be as unreasonable as this one, and not every trial judge will be as unreasonable as Judge Nichols.

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* Another panel of this same Court of Appeals so ruled in March, 2015 in the case of Cusumano v. MPSC.

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TWO MORE SMART METER APPEALS
MAY ANSWER THE QUESTION

by David Sheldon
May 31st, 2015

Early in 2015 the Michigan Court of Appeals (MCOA) handed smart meter resisters what can only be regarded as two major setbacks, denying nearly all claims against the DTE “opt-out” plan and the Consumers Energy Justice icons“opt-out” plan. We have analyzed these decisions in earlier articles on this site. Suffice it to say we think that, in the DTE case at least, it is very clear that the three judge panel hearing that case did not follow existing case law and chose instead to make new law to suit the needs of the smart grid political agenda.

Image above courtesy of digitalart.

Early in June we have oral arguments for two more smart meter appeal cases. Since different panels of judges will hear these cases we remain hopeful that we will finally see a just outcome. We are hopeful that this time the Court will finally rule according to the statutes and the existing body of case law. We encourage all of you who can to attend. We would like to pack the courtroom for both of these events. Location details and maps for both events, including parking information, can be found at this link: http://courts.mi.gov/Courts/COA/clerksoffice/Pages/Locations.aspx

 Stenman Appeal
Oral argument Tuesday June 9th at 10 am
Detroit branch of MCOA
3020 West Grand Boulevard
Suite 14-300

Sheldon Appeal
(Two errors corrected below)
Oral argument Wednesday June 10th at 11 am
Lansing branch of MCOA
Hall of Justice
925 West Ottawa Street
2nd Floor

 (1) Stenman Appeal: This case is unique among our cases in that it is the first appeal to be heard of a case that originated in a circuit court. All our other appeals have been cases that originated in the Public Service Commission. The Court of Appeals has much more latitude when reviewing a circuit court case than it does when reviewing the actions of an administrative agency.

For those of you who have changed your own meter, or have a plan to do so or have suffered a disconnection of service, this case is particularly relevant. If this appeal goes well we may finally have a way to stop DTE from forced installations all over their service territory!

Early in 2012 Ralph and Donna Stenman, of Farmington Hills, pleaded with DTE to remove a smart meter that had caused health problems for Donna, who is a cancer survivor, and was concerned, not only for her immediate symptoms, but also because the World Health Organization had rated in 2012 the type of microwave radiation that cellphones and smart meters produce “a possible carcinogen”. Their pleas to DTE were also based on a smart meter being a hazard for Ralph because the atrial fibrillation in his heart, put him at risk for blood clots and a stroke. The cause of Afib, per WebMD.com, is “rapid, disorganized electrical signals”. Smart meters put out very brief but high energy pulses about every 15 seconds that cause many people to experience irregular heartbeats.

Pleas were first made by letters to DTE – to no avail. In March of 2012, following a method that had been encouraged by Jerry Day and using a modified version of his suggested form, the couple sent DTE a document titled “Affidavit Notice and Demand for Removal of all “Smart Meters”, radiation emitting and surveillance devices.” The document stated that if DTE would not remove the smart meter within 21 days, the couple would do so, replacing it with a “safe and legally compliant meter, rated and calibrated to common metering standards”.

Upon refusal of DTE to remove the offending meter the couple found it necessary to take that action themselves. A licensed electrician was engaged for the job, readings of the smart and analog replacement meter were duly recorded and the smart meter safely shipped back to DTE. The utility responded first with threats and intimidation. Then a letter indicating that power would be disconnected, but ultimately sued the Stenmans instead in the Oakland Circuit Court. Attempts were made to find an attorney for their defense, but every attorney contacted stated that if he took on the case DTE would bankrupt him.

Ultimately the Stenmans found it necessary to represent themselves in court. Michigan Stop Smart Meters was pleased to arrange some assistance for them in the drafting of needed documents. In the fall of 2012 the case was heard by Circuit Judge Rudy Nichols.

The essence of the case was a demand for a “Partial Summary Judgment” which would include an injunction forcing the Stenmans to allow DTE employees back on their property to reinstall a smart meter. The injunction was to be permanent but the judgment would be considered partial only in the sense that a DTE claim against Stenmans for money damages would remain open to possibly be determined by a trial later.

A “Summary Judgment” is a judgment made without allowing for any trial or evidentiary hearing. There are long established legal principles that allow for this type of judgment when there are no material factual issues in controversy and the judgment can be rendered purely as a matter of law, based on facts agreed to by both sides.

We agree with the Stenmans that there were facts that had been explicitly placed in controversy that should render Judge Nichols decision contrary to law. They are:

  • Whether a “smart meter” is actually a lawful device that conforms to the definition of meter in the statute and in the regulations.
  • Whether the “digital meter” then being offered as an alternative would be any more lawful than the smart meter.
  • Whether either a smart or digital meter would threaten the Stenmans privacy. Preliminary evidence was offered in the form of a document authored by the National Institute for Science and Technology (NIST) to establish that smart meters are a threat to customer privacy and that they should only be installed on request of the customer.
  • Whether either a smart or digital meter would threaten the Stenman health. Preliminary evidence was offered in the form of an affidavit from Dr. Donald Hillman, retired MSU professor, relating the story of a little girl whose health had been severely compromised by the installation of a DTE smart meter.

Judge Nichols, in his Order of November 11th 2012, stated that the Hillman affidavit was irrelevant because it described what happened to another family, not what happened to the Stenmans. He ignored the other three arguments entirely, granted DTE’s motion for partial summary judgment and ordered the Stenmans to permit DTE employees to enter their property for the purpose of reinstalling a smart meter.

We agree with the Stenmans that Judge Nichols order was outrageous.

An appeal was filed. Again this had to be done with the Stenmans representing themselves as no attorney could be found willing to take on DTE. Again Michigan Stop Smart Meters was able to arrange some needed assistance in the preparation of an appeal brief and the drafting of other documents.

By agreement of both sides Judge Nichols put a stay on his order pending a decision by the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) regarding an “opt-out tariff” proposed by DTE where the only “opt-out meter” to be provided was a smart meter with one of its two transmitters turned off. In May of 2013 the MPSC approved DTE’s proposal that opt-out customers must pay an initial fee and monthly fees and receive only a “non-transmitting meter”.

Following this DTE moved to have the stay lifted. This might have made the installation of a smart meter follow in short order. Stenmans argued that there was an appeal of the opt-out plan before the Michigan Court of Appeals and other appeals also pending. They brought in letters from their doctors to establish the harm a smart meter would cause them. Mr. Stenmans cardiologist provided a signed letter stating that installation of a smart meter “could lead to a bad outcome” for Mr. Stenman. They brought in evidence that DTE had accommodated other families in their neighborhood with analog meters. Yet Judge Nichols lifted the stay.

As it happened DTE did not enforce the court order. We suspect the company was more interested in the legal precedent this case established than in actually getting a smart meter installed.

As the time for oral argument began to draw near the Stenmans were finally able to find an attorney to file a reply brief and take on the job of oral argument.

Those interested in more details on this case will find the most important documents and briefs here: https://michiganstopsmartmeters.com/the-stenman-case/

It has taken nearly two years, including an initial period where both sides filed briefs, for this appeal to reach the stage where oral argument will be heard.

Please come and show, not only your support for the Stenmans, but your support for the principle that nobody should be forced to have a health damaging surveillance device on their home. Pack the courtroom in downtown Detroit on Tuesday, June 9th.

(2) Sheldon Appeal: This case, while originating in the MPSC, is also unique in that it is the first case in which the Court of Appeals (MCOA) is being asked to hold the MPSC in contempt of court for failing to carry out a previous order of MCOA. It is also the only case to reach MCOA where the overall funding of smart meters in DTE’s service territory is called into question.

This is the case for those of you who have been appalled that the MPSC, without ever holding an evidentiary hearing on the privacy or health implications, would give DTE permission to charge back the costs of 2.4 million smart meters to its customers!

Some of you may recall that in April of 2012 the Court of Appeals issued a decision remanding the case that allowed this funding back to the MPSC for a redo. That appeal had been brought by ABATE (an association of large business users of electricity) and by then Attorney General Cox. In the remand order to the MPSC the court directed as follows:

“… we remand this matter for the PSC to conduct a full hearing on the AMI program, during which it shall consider, among other relevant matters, evidence related to the benefits, usefulness, and potential burdens of the AMI, specific information gleaned from pilot phases of the program regarding costs, operations, and customer response and impact, an assessment of similar programs initiated here or in other states, risks associated with AMI, and projected effects on rates. In other words, a real record, with solid evidence, should support whatever decision the PSC makes upon remand. “ (Emphasis added)

This order went beyond what the appellants had asked of the court. Does it sound like the Court of Appeals was instructing the MPSC to just consider the rates that utility customers would have to pay to fund smart meters? Incredibly that is all the MPSC did, in complete defiance of the court’s order. Not only that but four smart meter resisters who wanted to participate as interveners in the reopened case were denied that right – mainly on the basis that we wanted to raise issues having to do with the risks of AMI technology which the administrative judge said were “beyond the scope” of the remand proceeding. I was one of those who tried to participate and was shut out. The others were Linda Kurtz and Dominic and Lillian Cusumano. Three of us then protested the decision of the administrative judge to the Commission and were denied again.

On October 17th 2013 the Commission issued its final decision in the reopened case. To nobody’s surprise they only re-justified the decision they had made the first time around. With no new kinds of evidence being allowed, how could the outcome be any different the second time? Michigan’s current Attorney General Bill Schuette did not appeal this decision nor did ABATE.

On November 16th 2013 David Sheldon did appeal that MPSC decision. He asked the appeals court to find that MPSC should be held in contempt of court for failing to carry out the court’s previous order, and that the case should again be sent back to MPSC for another redo – but this time allowing for the scope of the case to include the health, privacy and safety issues, and allowing new interveners to join the case and introduce evidence concerning the issues that had previously been neglected.

The issues that will be argued in this case are:

  • That it was wrong of MPSC to limit the scope of the case to just determining the amount of cost recovery for DTE on this investment and thereby denying the opportunity for anyone to introduce evidence regarding health, privacy and safety issues.
  • That it was wrong for MPSC to exclude the very interveners in the remanded case who would raise the issues the Court of Appeals required MPSC to address.
  • That even if the MPSC’s authority be limited to setting rates (as some have argued) the Commission could still have used that rate setting authority to deny rate recovery of smart meter costs after a finding that the technology harms the customers and the public. Denial of rate recovery would almost certainly have meant no smart meter program in Michigan.
  • Moreover the MPSC had jurisdiction from the legislature to directly order DTE to correct health and privacy abuses when acting in response to written complaints. And there were written complaints from 35 city and county governments and from over 400 utility customers.

As with the Stenman case, it has taken nearly two years, including the time for filing briefs, for this case to reach the stage of oral argument.

Please come and show your support for a case that seeks to have MPSC “held in contempt” for its dereliction of duty in approving the entire smart meter program without hearing the evidence. Pack the courtroom in Lansing on Wednesday June 10th.

 

 

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three judges panelSome of the Consumers customers who appealed may take some comfort in the Court’s decision to remand one small part of their case to the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) for reconsideration. It is with some reluctance, therefore, that I write this story. On April 30th, 2015, the Michigan Court of Appeals (MCOA) issued a decision concerning the twin appeals that had been filed against the decision of the MPSC that, in turn, had both approved overall funding for the smart meter system and also approved a schedule of fees for persons wishing to opt-out of a transmitting smart meter. This decision may be found under the “Legal” menu tab on this website.

One appeal was by Michigan’s Attorney General and concerned his claim that when the MPSC made a decision allowing Consumers to recover the overall costs of its smart meter program from customers, that decision had not been properly supported by evidence on the record. The second appeal was by a group of 16 Consumers customers from the Muskegon area in which this same overall cost recovery was challenged as unsupported by the evidence. Also challenged was the inadequacy of the so called Consumers ‘opt-out’ tariff which, the appeal claimed, allows Consumers to force all their customers to have a smart meter, either with radio on or radio off. The two appeals were consolidated by the court and heard during one oral argument and decided by one court order.

The Attorney General’s appeal was denied altogether on grounds that he had apparently already signed off on funding the smart meter program as part of a settlement deal. In that settlement agreement, the AG had specifically exempted questions concerning the smart meter program to be decided at a later date. But the amount of revenue approved in the settlement included the amounts needed for the smart meter program. The Court took the position that MPSC’s only authority with respect to smart meters was to approve or not approve rates and, since the rates had already been approved, the AG’s appeal was held to have no merit.

The appeal of the Consumers customers, like that of the Attorney General, raised the issue that there was wholly inadequate evidence on the record to support the MPSC’s decision to approve overall cost recovery for the smart meter program. But, unlike the AG’s appeal, the Consumers customers had not signed off on these overall program costs. They had not participated in the original hearing of the case before the MPSC. The Court did not even comment on the argument of the Consumers customers that costs for the overall smart meter program had not been supported by appropriate evidence on the record. The Consumers appeal brief may be found under the “Legal” menu tab on this website.

The Consumers appeal also challenged the very idea of opt-out fees, arguing that the MPSC should have considered an alternative opt-in approach. Regrettably, the issue that any true opt-out must allow customers to keep or get back their mechanical analog meters was not even raised in the appeal. Raising this issue would have supported another argument that Consumers customers are getting little or no benefit by joining the ‘opt-out’ program. The appeal of the Muskegon Consumers customers was denied for the most part, except for a question as to the amount of the opt-out fees. Not whether there should be opt-out fees, but just the question of the amount of those fees. For that one narrow issue the Court remanded the case back to MPSC to develop a competent body of evidence to support whatever opt-out fees it might ultimately set after such a review.

The Consumers appeal also raised a Fourth Amendment argument but left out a key point necessary to win such a point. Ordinarily the Fourth Amendment is applied to actions of law enforcement or to the actions of other government agencies. In order to have it apply to a private entity, such as an investor owned public utility, it is necessary to demonstrate that the private entity is what is called a “state actor” in the case law. Such a demonstration was not made in the appeal brief at all and not made in a convincing manner in the reply brief or the oral argument. This panel chose to ignore the Fourth Amendment argument, unlike the panel that heard the DTE opt-out case two months earlier.

Sadly the appeals court stated that the decision whether to allow the Consumers customers to participate in the remanded case would be up to the MPSC. The MPSC is already on record that these customers should not participate since they were not participants in the original hearings. The MPSC also has a track record of excluding people from a remanded DTE case on similar grounds.

So what will come of all this? The case will be sent back to MPSC for a rehearing of the opt-out fee question, but, in all likelihood, no participation by these appellants. The same folks who didn’t think the issue was all that important the first time around will be the only ones allowed to introduce evidence the second time around. The MPSC will go through the motions of fulfilling the Court’s Order and will almost certainly, in the end, again approve the same opt-out fees approved the first time. Nothing will have been gained, except perhaps to make the MPSC work harder to achieve the same outcome.

Did this appeals court make smart meters mandatory? Absolutely not! The appeals court in this case, as in the earlier reported DTE case, was constrained, when reviewing the actions of an administrative agency, to only consider whether the agency did anything wrong. They could not get into the broader issues of whether customers have a valid complaint about what they are being subjected to. The Court based its opt-out decision on the MPSC not having the authority to tell a utility what kind of meters to use. The appeals court stated, in these two cases, that MPSC only has the authority to set the rates for whatever Consumers or DTE wants to do. This is good because it deprives both utilities of the argument that their smart meter programs are mandatory because the MPSC ordered it. It leaves both utilities in the position of making their programs mandatory solely on their own say-so.

The silver lining: The door is now open for individual utility customers, acting singly or as a group, to go into one or more of the state’s circuit courts and argue that Consumers (or DTE) has no legal authority to force smart meters on non-consenting customers! If such a legal action were successful at the circuit court level it would doubtless land in front of this appeals court in due course. But the appeals court, when reviewing the decision of a circuit court has much broader discretion to look at all the issues, including constitutional issues.

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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. three judges panel

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.”
  6. 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.”
  7. 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.

WHY DONATE TO MICHIGAN STOP SMART METERS?

 

 

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March 3rd, 2015 – Sterling Heights City Council to Request Legal Opinion from Michigan’s Attorney General.
By unanimous consent of Council, at their February 28th meeting, the city administration has drafted a new smart meter resolution. This one calls for a legal opinion from Michigan’s Attorney General as to whether Sterling Heights, or any home rule city, has the legal power to enact a smart meter ordinance. Councilman Romano made the proposal and gave a full update to Council on the city’s smart meter efforts, beginning with the unenforceable 2012 moratorium. His talk can be viewed in the below video:

Councilman Romano w counter(Click here to bring up the video of entire Council meeting, then fast forward to 2:02:23 to reach beginning of Romano’s statement)

The opinion being requested from the Attorney General asks three questions:

“Whether a Michigan home rule city has the authority to prohibit the installation of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (a/k/a Smart Meters) on residences?”

“Whether a Michigan home rule city has the authority to regulate the installation of Smart Meters to protect residents who prefer to retain their electromechanical meter as an alternative to the non-transmitting Smart Meter available under the utility’s opt-out program?”

“Whether a Michigan home rule city has the authority to prohibit the imposition of a fee for those customers who elect to participate in the Smart Meter op-out program?”

To read the full text of the agenda item and proposed resolution, Sterling Heights – Atty Gen Opinion Requested

This resolution is to be voted on tonight, March 3rd. There is little doubt it will pass since Council was unanimous in requesting that it be drafted and it appears to have full support of the city administration and city attorney.

Apparently a request for such a legal opinion must come from a state legislator, so Rep Henry Yanez, who recently chaired a meeting on smart meters, will be requested to make the formal request to Attorney General Bill Schuette.

If the Attorney General indicates that the city has certain powers to act in this matter, even if those powers are somewhat circumscribed, the city seems ready to pass an ordinance that would afford some protection to residential customers. The opinion will, in all liklihood, determine whether we can get other cities to do the same.

Jackie Ryan, a Sterling Heights resident, has been spearheading the citizen protests in Sterling Heights.

 

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by Vigilant Dave

DTE Electric Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of DTE Energy, on December 19th 2014, filed an application to the Michigan Public Service Commission for what is known as a “general rate case”. In their application they ask for approval to slightly lower electricity rates for some classes of high volume commercial users while substantially raising rates across the board for all classes of residential customers. A typical residential customer would see an increase of $13.70/month if DTE’s application is approved.

DTE argues that commercial users have been subsidizing residential customers and that this imbalance needs to be corrected. They will be submitting some evidence to support this claim. They also indicate that they will introduce evidence concerning progress with smart meter deployments and the experience to date with the smart meter opt-out program. The official notice of hearing on this case may be found here: http://efile.mpsc.state.mi.us/efile/docs/17767/0036.pdf

DTE states that they are not asking for an increase in opt-out fees at this time as they believe such action would be ‘premature’ until there is more data on costs and participation levels. Nevertheless, we cannot rule out the possibility that the Commission will increase opt-out rates based on a possible recommendation from staff.

DTE is asking the Commission to again approve the AMI program as providing benefits to the utility customers substantially in excess of the costs that are being passed on to the customers. They are also asking the Commission to approve expansion of what is known as the “demand side management program”. Stripped of the jargon, what this means is that the company will be more aggressively seeking to control how and when residential customers may use electricity for certain appliances. This is an inevitable outgrowth of smart meters and smart appliances. The company will doubtless argue that the new programs will be ‘voluntary’.

If you would like to have a voice in this case there are two ways to do this:

  • You may simply put in “an appearance” in the case in order to get your comment on the record. This means coming to the “pre-hearing conference” on Thursday, January 29th at 9 am, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Sharon L. Feldman at the Commission’s new address: 7109 West Saginaw Highway, Lansing, Michigan. Upon arrival be sure to put your name on the sign-in sheet to speak so that they will call on you. The ALJ will likely set a time limit, such as 3 minutes or 5 minutes for each person wishing to comment. We hope a very large number of citizens who are upset with this smart meter program will take advantage of this option. There is no cost to do this other than about ½ day of your time.
  • You may choose to become what is called an “intervenor” in the case. This will allow you to take an active part over the weeks and months of hearings, including the submission of written evidence and witnesses, participation in cross-examination of DTE witnesses, and the writing of a brief in which you make arguments based on the evidence and the law as to what decision the Commission should make on DTE’s application.

To become an intervenor you must file a “Petition to Intervene” with the Commission at least 7 days prior to the pre-hearing conference, or by Thursday, January 22nd. This is a course that will require a considerably greater commitment of your time and a willingness to acquire at least some familiarity with the rules of procedure and the rules of evidence.

If you wish to become an intervenor, we can help. Some of us who have been down this road before will lead a workshop to help others if there is sufficient interest. The first step, however, is to read Part II of “Practice and Procedure Before the Commission” at: http://www7.dleg.state.mi.us/orr/Files/AdminCode/934_2009-046LR_AdminCode.pdf. Then read DTE’s application at: http://efile.mpsc.state.mi.us/efile/docs/17767/0001.pdf. Based on these 2 documents, draft your petition to intervene. Your petition can be created as a Word document or pdf document and attached to an email to the Executive Secretary of the Commission. Call me at (248) 604-7545 if you need assistance with creating your petition.

Scope of an Intervention: You can choose to limit your participation to only the smart meter issues OR you could choose to also challenge the across the board rate increase for residential customers. Either way you are going to need to present admissible evidence. But if you choose to challenge the rate increase you are probably going to need to present a witness who can be qualified as an expert on the economics and accounting procedures of the utility industry.

What is the Real Value in Becoming an Intervenor?

The real value is the opportunity to get evidence in the record that will effectively counter DTE’s claims and will, therefore, make it harder for the Commission to simply rubber stamp DTE’s application. If the Commission simply ignores the evidence that intervenors supply, it may become necessary for one or more of us to bring an appeal of the Commission’s final decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals. But first we must get evidence on record, or get on record the fact that our evidence was excluded from the record.

In the wake of the very successful hearing December 2nd public hearing before Tom McMillin’s House Oversight Committee we think the Commission and the ALJ will be more cautious about dismissing intervenors or ignoring their evidence as they have so often done in the past.