Plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Summit Utilities over Arkansas customers’ natural gas bills have voluntarily dismissed the suit, which had included preliminary restraining orders preventing the utility from cutting service to nonpaying customers.
The plaintiffs, represented in part by Scott Poynter and Daniel Holland of the Poynter Law Group in Little Rock, asked for dismissal without prejudice, making it subject to refiling.
“Plaintiffs intend to provide the Public Service Commission the opportunity to consider their claims under the Primary Jurisdiction Doctrine,” their filing said. “No class has been certified and no answer or motion for summary judgment has been filed. As such, this notice of voluntary dismissal without prejudice is permissible and appropriate…”
Summit Utilities of Colorado became Arkansas’ largest natural gas provider when it completed its acquisition of CenterPoint Energy’s infrastructure and customers in Arkansas and Oklahoma in January 2022. The purchase had a value of $2.15 billion.
U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson granted the motion for voluntary dismissal on Tuesday, rendering moot the temporary restraining orders granted by a state judge and a federal judge last week.
U.S. District Judge Brian Miller recused himself because he was a Summit customer, leading to Wilson’s appointment to the case.
Summit officials had previously agreed that the Public Service Commission, Arkansas’ regulator of public utilities, was the proper venue to hear grievances about problems the company had in billing Arkansans and shifting over their accounts in the transition from CenterPoint.
The lawsuit accused Summit of overcharging Arkansans and manipulating bills in other ways. It also accused the company of inadequate oversight of the billing process.
“At Summit, providing exceptional and safe service to our customers and communities is our top priority,” said a statement from Lizzy Reinholt, Summit’s senior vice president of corporate Affairs. “We are working hard to address customer concerns so we can provide the service our customers expect of us and we expect of ourselves… call wait times are down, and our customer service team stands ready to help customers address their needs.”
The company has added 50 customer service representatives to reduce call wait times since Nov. 1 and will be hiring more in the months ahead. Reinholt told Arkansas Business that wait times are now averaging below two minutes.
Summit has also set up a new online payment assistance page, the company said in a news release, www.summitcares.com.
“As a regulated utility, Summit does not profit from the cost of natural gas, and the Arkansas Public Service Commission reviews our gas purchasing plans and cost of gas filings annually,” Reinholt added. “We know that customers are struggling with high energy costs this winter and expect a significant decrease in the cost of gas when we make our next required cost of gas filing at the end of this month.”
On Nov. 1, 2022, the company suspended charging late fees and disconnecting customers. The utility will continue that policy for the time being but "encourages customers to pay their bills and call the customer service department at 800-992-7552 for information about payment plans, average monthly billing, or payment assistance for those that qualify."