LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Customers paying a gas bill in central Arkansas are likely paying it through Summit Utilities, and for customers thinking their winter gas bills looked outrageous, they were not alone.
Thousands of customers were unhappy with high bills enough to file a class action lawsuit. That suit was dropped out of federal court by a plaintiff’s request in the middle of March, and court documents show that the case was withdrawn, Judge Brian Miller recused himself.
“I have been personally impacted by the subject matter herein to the point that I could be called as a witness,” Miller explained.
Summit customers and their attorney, Scott Poynter, filed a motion Tuesday requesting to be part of the ongoing arguments at the Arkansas Public Service Commission.
“We’re back in front in a venue where we’re trying to battle and work for the benefit of our clients again,” Poynter said.
The attorney is himself one of over 400,000 Summit gas customers in Arkansas. Since the beginning of the year, he has been leading the class action efforts, and on Tuesday he asked to join in the APSC’s investigation requested by Attorney General Tim Griffin.
“All sides to it are doing something that’s never been done before, before the utility commission,” Poynter said. “There’s never been a class of consumers so upset about utility bills that they’ve had to file a class action complaint before the commission.”
Poynter said the APSC still has to decide whether to take up the request or let it go back to court. Jeff Hilton, Interim Executive Director for Arkansas Public Service Commission, said it is likely they will if it clears their legal requirements.
The two investigations that the APSC currently has opened are focused on Summit’s billing practices and their purchasing practices in acquiring gas at a fair rate. Poynter said his clients are deeply invested in both focuses of the inquiry.
“The biggest problem that exists is that the bills are atrocious. Okay? Across the board. They’re enormous,” he said. “They’re either two times or three times or four times, even 10 times, what their normal average bills had been in the past.”
Poynter accused Summit of auto-charging some customers who are not enrolled in autopay or ending their levelized billing when taking over CenterPoint Energy, which Summit acquired in late 2022.
“There’s a real problem here because the sheer numbers show that there’s a problem,” he claimed.
Summit has already admitted publicly to some billing errors but claims those issues have all since been resolved. It is unclear what consequences Summit could face, if any. The class action suit is seeking damages but also a suspension of any disconnections or late fees of Summit customers.
The attorney general’s office and Summit are already submitting findings for arguments following Griffin’s request for an investigation.
Deadlines are already set for the attorney general to file direct testimony supporting his motion and detailing each of Summit’s alleged violations of Section 5 of the General Service Rules no later than Mar. 31. The APSC has directed Summit to file its own direct testimony in response no later than April 20.
If granted a chance to intervene, the arguments from Poynter on behalf of customers that would address the earlier direct testimony would have a deadline of May 10.
Further proceedings, including additional testimony, hearing or delays, are possible.
A Summit spokesperson said on March 15 that the company would continue its policy put in place on Nov. 1, 2022, of not disconnecting or charging late fees to customers.