Summit Utilities, the Colorado-based company that acquired CenterPoint Energy’s natural gas network in Oklahoma and Arkansas in a $2.15 billion deal in 2021, has temporarily lost its ability to cut off customer service for nonpayment.
An Arkansas judge has issued a restraining order in a lawsuit by Summit customers stemming from significant billing problems in the transition following the CenterPoint deal.
The restraining order, issued by Circuit Court Judge LaTonya Honorable in Little Rock. Summit’s attorneys have succeeded in having the case moved to federal court, but U.S. District Court Judge Brian Miller upheld the restraining order. Miller then recused himself from the case, which will be assigned to another federal judge in the Eastern District of Arkansas.
Honorable’s order gives Summit customers the right to avoid paying their bills while it remains in place, and it also prevents Summit from assessing late fees on customers. The order came before the case was moved to federal jurisdiction.
Court documents and complaints to state officials allege Summit has billed some customers more than they owed, and the utility has faced months of criticism for fumbling the transition of CenterPoint accounts. The utility has some 425,000 accounts in Arkansas and monthly revenue in the state surpassing $5 million, court pleadings say.
The suit, seeking class status for all of Summit’s Arkansas customers, says that Summit promised a “seamless transition” in documents filed with the Arkansas Public Service Commission in summer 2021. “Unfortunately for Summit’s customers, this promise has proven to be demonstrably false,” says the suit, filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court in March.
Miller, the federal judge who recused himself, is a Summit customer who has faced billing problems. He said he recused because he felt he might be a potential witness.
Citing billing problems and severe winter weather, Summit voluntarily suspended cutoffs and late charges months ago and its CEO, Kurt Adams, issued a message to customers saying that the suspension will continue and that cutoffs will resume only after the utility gives “ample notice.”
The customers who filed suit say that since Summit fully took over billing from CenterPoint, then Arkansas’ largest gas utility, it has overcharged them and “further manipulated” customers with price-gouging and inadequate billing oversight. Even when customers paid, their payments often went unposted by the utility, the lawsuit says.
“While Summit has blamed its transition of computer systems to it from CERC, Plaintiff and other similarly situated Arkansas customers continue to suffer from 'estimated' enormous bills,” the complaint alleges. “Summit also states that the cost of gas has increased substantially, and it is simply passing along that cost to its customers.”
Summit has said it makes “no profit” from the inflated gas prices, and the company has also cited the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in explaining gas bill increases.
The suit seeks a jury trial and monetary damages.
Summit representatives didn’t immediately respond to several requests for comment from Arkansas Business, but in the past have said the company encountered computer problems transferring over customer accounts and that the confusion with billing is being addressed.