Category Archives: Consumer Advocacy

PUC to Investigate Water and Wastewater Rate Increases by Aqua Pennsylvania and Aqua Pennsylvania Wastewater

puc_sealSeptember 20, 2018 the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) voted to suspend and investigate proposed water and wastewater rate increases by Aqua Pennsylvania Inc. and Aqua Pennsylvania Wastewater Inc.

The Commission voted 5-0 to investigate the annual revenue and rate increase requests. Aqua Pennsylvania proposes to increase its annual operating revenues for water services by approximately $66.373 million (15.4 percent).  Aqua Pennsylvania Wastewater seeks a corresponding increase in its annual operating revenues for wastewater services by $5.369 million (40.1 percent).  The total annual revenue increase request amounts to approximately $71.8 million.

Under the proposals, the average monthly bill for a residential Main Division water customer using 4,080 gallons per month would increase by $9.22 per month, from $59.85 to $69.07. The average monthly bill for a residential Media Division wastewater customer using 4,200 gallons per month would increase $20.73 from $42.19 to $62.92.

These revenue and rate increase requests are suspended for up to seven months and will be assigned to the Office of Administrative Law Judge for evidentiary hearings and the issuance of recommended decisions or settlements.

Aqua Pennsylvania provides water service to more than 428,000 customers in portions of more than 200 municipalities throughout 32 Pennsylvania counties.  Aqua Pennsylvania Wastewater provides wastewater service to more than 19,000 customers in portions of more than 40 municipalities throughout 15 Pennsylvania counties.  Collectively, the two companies serve nearly 1.4 million people throughout the Commonwealth.

Desire more specific assistance regarding PUC matters, representation in rate cases, utility ratemaking, or utility law, contact attorney Jeffrey A. Franklin at Prince Law Offices, P.C.

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PUC Creates New Office of Cybersecurity Compliance and Oversight

puc_sealSeptember 20, 2018 the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) announced the appointment of Michael C. Holko, of Dauphin County, as the Director of the Office of Cybersecurity Compliance and Oversight (OCCO), a new position created by the PUC to direct the Commission’s cybersecurity and regulatory oversight program in helping to ensure that the Commonwealth’s regulated utilities are protected from cyber-attacks and ensuring adequate, safe and reliable public utility service to consumers.

“We are pleased to add Michael to our PUC team as he joins us in this most critical position,” said PUC Chairman Gladys M. Brown at Public Meeting.  “The creation of our new Office of Cybersecurity Compliance and Oversight is the next important step in the Commission’s continued efforts to protect Pennsylvania utility customers from experiencing disruption of utility services and other vital systems and services we depend on.”

Holko’s experience includes positions at the state’s Office of Administration’s Bureau of Personnel, the state’s Office of the Budget, the Pennsylvania Justice Network and most recently as a program manager at the state’s Office of Administration, Office for Information Technology.  Holko received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Slippery Rock University.  He resides in Harrisburg.

As the Director of the Office of Cybersecurity Compliance and Oversight, Holko will advise the Executive Director and Commissioners on policy issues and procedural improvements involving cybersecurity oversight functions of regulated utilities; draft proposed cyber-related regulations; and oversee the preparation of orders, rulemakings, policy statements, Secretarial Letters and memoranda related to cybersecurity policies and procedures of those regulated utilities.

Chairman Brown also noted that October is Cybersecurity Awareness Month, and discussed how the PUC is working with utilities, state agencies such as the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, emergency responders, and other organizations to better prepare for cyber and physical attacks, strengthen critical systems, share information about current and future threats, and ensure that essential services are as resilient as possible. Last summer, those entities joined other stakeholders around the world in EARTH EX 2017, a first-ever transnational exercise to test responses to a large-scale power outage event.

Additionally, Chairman Brown stressed that it is equally important for consumers to review Pennsylvania’s online cybersecurity guide for tips to prevent identity theft, protect passwords, keep children safe online and secure mobile devices and referred utilities to the Cybersecurity Best Practices for Small and Medium Pennsylvania Utilities Guide, published by the PUC and available on its website.

If you or your business have legal questions or concerns regarding communications law, computer law, privacy, or cybersecurity law matters, contact attorney Jeffrey A. Franklin at Prince Law Offices.

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PUC Orders 17 Utilities to Return $320+ Million to Consumers Following Federal Tax Reform

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) on May 17, 2018 issued an Order, puc_sealrequiring a “negative surcharge” or monthly credit on customer bills for 17 major electric, natural gas, and water and wastewater utilities, totaling more than $320-million per year. The refunds to consumers are the result of the substantial decrease in federal corporate tax rates and other tax changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2017, which impacted the tax liability of many utilities.

Additionally, the PUC will consider the effects of federal tax reform on seven other public utilities as part of the investigations for rate cases which have already been filed or are expected to be filed by Aug. 1, 2018. In those situations, the Commission has directed the parties involved to address the impact of any TCJA tax savings as part of the overall rate design for each utility.

Today’s Order, along with a series of orders specific to each affected utility, were approved by 5-0 votes. The PUC’s action today follows an extensive investigation into the effects of federal tax reform on the rates charged by Commission-regulated utilities – which, among other things, reflect annual taxes owed both to the federal and state governments.

“As economic regulators, it is the Commission’s responsibility to ensure that utility rates are just and reasonable. Further, it is necessary for utility rates to reflect relevant tax expenses,” noted PUC Chairman Gladys M Brown in a statement at today’s public meeting. “I believe this work (by PUC staff) has resulted in an innovative answer by this Commission to effectively flow-through the benefits of the TCJA back to customers.”

Vice Chairman Andrew G. Place also praised staff’s work in this complex proceeding and agreed with the Commission’s overall approach. However, he indicated that the utilities’ overall cost of capital and rate of return should apply on the accumulated balances of tax savings for the period between January 1 and June 30, 2018.

Depending on the revenue and tax impact on each utility addressed in today’s PUC orders, the distribution charges on monthly consumer bills are expected to decrease from .56-percent to 8.55-percent. A list of the utilities impacted by today’s PUC orders, along with the anticipated changes in distribution rates, has been posted to the online docket for this matter: M-2018-2641242.  Tax Effects

Public utilities required to begin returning federal tax savings to consumers include Citizens’ Electric Company of Lewisburg, Metropolitan Edison Company, Pennsylvania Electric Company, Pennsylvania Power Company, Pike County Light & Power Company, PPL Electric Utilities Corporation, Wellsboro Electric Company, West Penn Power Company, PECO Energy Company (Gas Division), National Fuel Gas Distribution Corporation, Peoples Gas Company LLC, Peoples Natural Gas Company LLC—Equitable Division, UGI Central Penn Gas Inc., UGI Penn Natural Gas Inc., UGI Utilities, Inc.–Gas Division, Pennsylvania-American Water Company and Pennsylvania-American Water Company—Wastewater.

Utilities not required to take immediate action because of the continuing analysis of tax reform impacts on their current or pending rate cases include UGI Utilities, Inc. (Electric), Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania, Inc., Duquesne Light Company, PECO Energy Company (Electric), York Water Company, Suez Water Pennsylvania, Inc. and Aqua Pennsylvania, Inc.  In each of those situations, any tax savings will be considered as part of the broader evaluation of their rates.

The Commission also noted that one Pennsylvania public utility saw no financial impact or an increased federal tax liability as the result of TCJA. Per today’s order, Columbia Water Company is directed to file a tariff or tariff supplement within 10 days, replacing their current rates, which were declared to be “temporary” by Commission action in March 2018.

Finally, the Commission investigation determined that two utilities are receiving only a small increased tax liability from TCJA – Peoples Natural Gas Company LLC and Newtown Artesian Water Company. For these two utilities, the Commission’s previous order declaring their rates to be temporary will continue, subject to annual reconciliation.

Desire more specific assistance regarding PUC matters or energy law, contact attorney Jeffrey A. Franklin at Prince Law Offices, P.C.

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Report tax identity theft with IdentityTheft.gov

If you’re a tax professional, business owner, or in a human resources department, the FTC and IRS can help you help clients, employees, or other people who discover they’re victims of tax-related identity theft.IdentityTheft.gov website on a laptop, tablet, and smartphone.

 Tax-related identity theft happens when someone uses your stolen Social Security number (SSN) to file a tax return and claim your refund. You might find out about it when you try to e-file — only to find that someone else already has submitted a return — or when the IRS sends you a letter saying it has identified a suspicious tax return that used your SSN. That’s when you’ll need to file an IRS Identity Theft Affidavit (IRS Form 14039), so that the IRS can begin resolving your case.

 Until now, you had to complete an Affidavit from the IRS website, print it, then fax or mail it to the IRS. Now, the FTC and IRS have collaborated to let people report tax-related identity theft to the IRS online, using the FTC’s IdentityTheft.gov website. It’s the only place you can submit your IRS Form 14039 electronically.

 What are the benefits? IdentityTheft.gov will:

Walk you through the process of completing the Form 14039

  • Transfer your Form 14039 to the IRS securely
  • Guide you through placing fraud alerts on your credit files, checking your credit reports, and taking other steps to stop the tax identity theft from harming your accounts, and
  • Help you resolve any other problems the tax identity theft may have caused.

Here’s how it works: IdentityTheft.gov will first ask you questions to collect the information the IRS needs, then use your information to populate the Form 14039 and let you review it. Once you’re satisfied, you can submit the Form 14039 to the IRS through IdentityTheft.gov and download a copy for yourself. About 30 days later, the IRS will send you a letter confirming it received the information.

Remember, though — filing the Affidavit doesn’t eliminate the need to pay your taxes. If you couldn’t e-file your tax return, you’ll still need to mail it to the IRS and pay any taxes you owe.

You may share this information with any victims of tax-related identity theft you encounter and remind them to visit IdentityTheft.gov to report the problem and get recovery help.

If you or your business have legal questions or concerns regarding computer law, privacy, or cybersecurity law matters, contact attorney Jeffrey A. Franklin at Prince Law Offices.

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Investing in Bitcoin – Cryptocurrencies

Clients have been asking me about investing in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently provided some helpful advice.  ftc-seal

You do your best to keep up with the latest financial news. You’ve been hearing more about cryptocurrencies and asking yourself “Hmmm.” Of course, it’s not just Bitcoin. There are now hundreds of cryptocurrencies, which are a type of digital currency, on the market. They’ve been publicized as a fast and inexpensive way to pay online, but many are now also being marketed as investment opportunities. But before you decide to purchase cryptocurrency as an investment, here are a few things to consider:

  • Cryptocurrencies aren’t backed by a government or central bank. Unlike most traditional currencies, such as the dollar or yen, the value of a cryptocurrency is not tied to promises by a government or a central bank.
  • If you store your cryptocurrency online, you don’t have the same protections as a bank account. Holdings in online “wallets” are not insured by the government like U.S. bank deposits are.
  • A cryptocurrency’s value can change constantly and dramatically. An investment that may be worth thousands of dollars on Tuesday could be worth only hundreds on Wednesday. If the value goes down, there’s no guarantee it will rise again.
  • Nothing about cryptocurrencies makes them a foolproof investment. Just like with any investment opportunity, there are no guarantees.
  • No one can guarantee you’ll make money off your investment. Anyone who promises you a guaranteed return or profit is likely scamming you. Just because the cryptocurrency is well-known or has celebrities endorsing it doesn’t mean it’s a good investment.
  • Not all cryptocurrencies or the companies behind them are the same. Before you decide to invest in a cryptocurrency, look into the claims the company is making. Do an internet search with the name of the company and the cryptocurrency with words like review, scam, or complaint. Look through several pages of search results.

Read more about Investing Online.

Want to learn more about the technology underlying cryptocurrencies? See my earlier blog post Blockchain Technology Overview https://blog.princelaw.com/2018/02/07/blockchain-technology-overview/

If you or your business have legal questions or concerns regarding computer law, privacy, or cybersecurity law matters, contact attorney Jeffrey A. Franklin at Prince Law Offices.

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The 3rd Circuit holds debtors may sue creditors who offer to settle time-barred debt under the FDCPA.

Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, rendered an opinion in the class action, Michelle Tatis vs. Allied Interstate, LLC: John Does 1-25, No. 16-4022, clarifying whether time-barred offers from creditors to settle old obligations violated the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act (“FDCPA”). On appeal, the 3rd Circuit reversed a decision by the United States District Court for the District Of New Jersey granting Defendant’s Motion To Dismiss suit. Plaintiff, Michelle Tatis, commenced a class action suit against Defendant, Allied Interstate, LLC, alleging that a collection letter sent by Allied offering to settle her time-barred debt violated the FDCPA’s prohibition against using “any false, deceptive, or misleading representations or means in connection with the collection of any debt.” See 15 U.S.C. § 1692e. Tatis had a ten year old debt of $1,289.86 owed to Bally Total Fitness which Allied sought to collect by sending a letter offering to settle the obligation for pennies on the dollar.

In the state of New Jersey, the statute of limitations to commence a debt collection action is six years. Pennsylvania has a four year statute of limitations to commence a debt collection action. What that means is that if the 6 years, or 4 years in Pennsylvania, has passed since a debtor defaulted on his/her obligation to pay his/her debt, a creditor cannot sue the debtor to recover the debt. It does not mean that a creditor cannot offer to settle and that a debtor cannot voluntarily agree to repay the debt. A debtor may voluntarily agree to repay the obligation for personal reasons or a desire to honor the obligation. However, there is no legal threat to the debtor after the statute of limitations has passed. Whether or not an offer to settle misrepresents the legal status of a time-barred obligation is the focus of the 3rd Circuit’s Opinion.

In Tatis, Allied sent a letter after the statute of limitations had run stating: “[The creditor] is willing to accept payment in the amount of $128.99 in settlement of this debt. You can take advantage of this settlement offer if we receive payment of this amount or if you make another mutually acceptable payment arrangement within 40 days . . . .”

Tatis’ complaint alleged that Tatis interpreted the word “settlement” in the letter to mean that she had a “legal obligation” to pay the debt, and the least- sophisticated debtor would hold a similar belief. Tatis claimed that letter violated several prohibitions of the FDCPA including: §1692 e(2)(A), falsely representing the legal status of debt; §1692e(5), making false threats to take legal action that cannot be legally taken; and §1692e(10) using false representations and/or deceptive means to collect or attempt to collect a debt. Allied filed a Motion To Dismiss alleging that no threat to take legal action was made to Tatis by the settlement letter.

The U.S. District Court agree with Allied and held that an attempt to collect a time-barred does not violate the FDCPA unless it is accompanied a threat of legal action. District Court stated that the use of the word “settlement” in a letter did not constitute a threat of legal action. Finally, The U.S. District Court held that because under New Jersey law partial repayment would not revive the statute of limitations, the letter could not deceive or mislead a consumer into inadvertently reviving the debt.

The 3rd Circuit in reversing the District Court focused on the remedial nature of the FDCPA and the broad prohibitions set forth in the FDCPA by Congress to curb abusive, deceptive, and unfair debt collection practices. Because of the remedial nature of the FDCPA, its language is construed broadly to protect debtors. In addition, the “least sophisticated debtor” standard is used to determine whether any debt collection practices violate the FDCPA. The “least sophisticated debtor” standard is a very low standard which does requires a plaintiff to prove that he or she was mislead, but only that the least sophisticated debtor could be mislead.

The 3rd Circuit looked at several other court decisions involving similar settlement letters which found that offers to “settle” could mislead the least sophisticated debtor to believe that debt was legally enforceable in court. The 3rd Circuit agreed with its sister courts and held that in the specific context of a debt-collection letter, the least-sophisticated debtor could be misled into thinking that “settlement of the debt” referred to the creditor’s ability to enforce the debt in court rather than a mere invitation to settle the account. The 3rd Circuit concluded that the least-sophisticated debtor could plausibly be misled by the specific language used in Allied’s letter and vacated the District Court’s order granting Allied’s motion to dismiss. However, the 3rd Circuit would not go as far as to hold that standing alone, settlement offers and attempts to obtain voluntary repayments of stale debts constitute deceptive or misleading practices. Additionally, the 3rd Circuit declined to hold that the use of the word “settlement” is “misleading” as a matter of federal law or mandate the use of any specific language. The 3rd Circuit, in keeping with the text and purpose of the FDCPA, reiterated that any such letters, when read in their entirety, must not deceive or mislead the least-sophisticated debtor into believing that she has a legal obligation to pay the time-barred debt.

What it means for creditors is that they must very careful in drafting “settlement offers” for time-barred debt. A settlement offer cannot imply that a time-barred debt is legally enforceable. The 3rd Circuit believed the word “settle” could imply “concluding or avoiding a lawsuit.” Perhaps a disclaimer that no legal action can or will be taken if the debtor choses to voluntarily repay the debt.

With regards to debtors, if the language of settlement letter would mislead an unsophisticated consumer into believing that if he or she does not settle the time-barred debt he or she may be subject to suit, then that letter may violate the FDCPA. A debtor who receives a settlement letter may bring suit against the creditor. Under the FDCPA, a debtor may sue for actual damages, statutory damages of $1,000.00 per violation, and attorney’s fees so long as the suit is commenced within a year of the violation.

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Blockchain Technology Overview

When and if to use blockchain

Aiming to clarify blockchain, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently released an introduction to blockchain, which underpins Bitcoin and other digital currencies.
blockchain_illustration_KIrvineShutterstock

Credit: K. Irvine/NIST/Shutterstock

 

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