The Laundry Basket Inc. v. State of Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers and National Grid, 042720 RISUP, PC-2019-4382

Docket Nº:C. A. PC-2019-4382
Opinion Judge:VOGEL, J.
Party Name:THE LAUNDRY BASKET INC., Appellant, v. STATE OF RHODE ISLAND DIVISION OF PUBLIC UTILITIES AND CARRIERS and NATIONAL GRID Appellees.
Attorney:For Plaintiff: Edward R. McCormick, III, Esq. For Defendant: John P. McCoy, Esq., Christy Hetherington, Esq., Tiffany Ann Parenteau, Esq.
Case Date:April 27, 2020
Court:Superior Court of Rhode Island
 
FREE EXCERPT

THE LAUNDRY BASKET INC., Appellant,

v.

STATE OF RHODE ISLAND DIVISION OF PUBLIC UTILITIES AND CARRIERS and NATIONAL GRID Appellees.

C. A. No. PC-2019-4382

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence

April 27, 2020

For Plaintiff: Edward R. McCormick, III, Esq.

For Defendant: John P. McCoy, Esq., Christy Hetherington, Esq., Tiffany Ann Parenteau, Esq.

DECISION

VOGEL, J.

The Laundry Basket Inc. (Laundry Basket or Appellant) brings this appeal from a March 1, 2019 decision and order of the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (the PUC) finding that it tampered with gas meters at four locations. In accordance with the decision and order, Appellant owes $229, 194.78 to Narragansett Electric Company d/b/a National Grid-Gas (National Grid) for the previously unbilled natural gas usage. The PUC further ruled that National Grid may submit another statement to the customer for the amount owed, and if Laundry Basket fails to pay that bill within thirty days of receipt, gas service at all locations will be terminated. This Court exercises jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 42-35-15(g). For the reasons set forth herein, the Court affirms the decision of the PUC.

I

Facts & Travel

Laundry Basket is a coin-operated, self-service laundromat with a wash, dry, and fold service. (Hr'g Tr. 6:22-23, Apr. 30, 2018.) For twenty of the twenty-five years it has been in business, Laundry Basket has operated at four separate locations within the City of Cranston, 521 Pontiac Avenue, 1070 Park Avenue, 947 Cranston Street, and 400 Dyer Avenue.1 Id. at 7:18-25. On July 29, 2016, National Grid personnel discovered evidence of meter tampering at 947 Cranston Street and proceeded to inspect the other three locations. Hr'g Tr. 33:8-9, Mar. 27, 2018; see also 13:11-24. The inspection was comprehensive and included photographs and notes made at the various sites by field technicians before National Grid removed the meters and conducted additional testing on them at its facility in Lincoln. Id. at 41:4-6; see also 65:3-5; see also 9:8-13; see also PUC Exs. 4-7. Based upon the inspections and testing of the meters, National Grid determined that Laundry Basket had tampered with the meters and had been underbilled for gas usage. Id. at 33:21-24. In May 2017, the utility company billed the Appellant for the amounts it claimed were owed due to past underbilling. See id.; see also National Grid Ex. C at 8. In response, Laundry Basket filed a complaint2 with the PUC challenging the contention that the company had tampered with the meters and was responsible for the amounts billed by National Grid. The PUC conducted a duly noticed evidentiary hearing on the Appellant's appeal on February 16, 2018, March 27, 2018, and April 30, 2018.

National Grid presented several witnesses at the administrative hearing. Robert St. Hilaire testified that as supervisor of the gas meter shop, lab, and testing, he was responsible for overseeing the supply of gas meters in Rhode Island and the accuracy of meter testing. (Hr'g Tr. 10:2-24, Feb. 16, 2018.) Mr. St. Hilaire additionally testified that he reviewed the specific gas meters at issue in this case. Id. at 11:19-20. He described the chain of custody of the meters removed from Laundry Basket and taken to the facility in Lincoln, Rhode Island. Id. at 11:4-12:20. National Grid personnel handled the meters at all times. Id. at 12:23-25. According to Mr. St. Hilaire, in accordance with regular procedure, gas meters are read and bills calculated through Electronic Receiver Transmitters (ERTs), which send electronic meter reads from the meter to National Grid's billing system. Id. at 14:2-7. National Grid relies on ERT reads for monthly billing. Id. at 14:19.

Mr. St. Hilaire described the protocol followed when a gas meter is brought into the facility for testing. Id. at 15:11-16:3. The meters are acclimated for twenty-four hours before National Grid personnel test them. Id. at 15:11-13. While testing, employees examine the meter's condition and take notes regarding any issue they find to be of concern, such as physical damage or evidence that the meter has been compromised. Id. at 15:13-19. Mr. St. Hilaire addressed the specific meters taken from each location in this case. He testified that based upon the examinations and testing performed by National Grid, meters at all four locations revealed evidence of tampering. See generally id. at 15-47.

National Grid presented three other witnesses, Sue McCarthy, Christopher Lincoln, and Kenneth Wood. Ms. McCarthy, a gas meter technician, tested the meters after they were returned to National Grid's facility in Lincoln. (Hr'g Tr. 7:24-8:10, Mar. 27, 2018.) She explained that in order to obtain a proper reading of a meter, she first removes the index cover to ensure that the ERT is connected. Id. at 19:2-20:25. She noted that the meter at 947 Cranston Street had been removed and then replaced sloppily, causing the ERT connection to become loose affecting the accuracy of the reading. Id. at 9:8-10:12. Regarding the meter at 400 Dyer Avenue, Ms. McCarthy testified that the tamper plugs were removed which was indicative of tampering, and such removal would result in incorrect readings. Id. at 11:7-16. She explained that tamper plugs are seals, and if they are missing from a meter, it is a signal that something is the matter with the meter. Id. at 11:7-10. Tamper plugs are compression fitted to the meter and cannot be removed without using a hand tool, such as a screwdriver. (Hr'g Tr. 20:5-8, Feb. 16, 2018); (see also Hr'g Tr. 22:21-23:2, Mar. 27, 2018).

As to the meter at 1070 Park Avenue, she found that the ERT was broken and placed on the meter backwards resulting in inaccurate readings. (Hr'g Tr. 12:4-16, Mar. 27, 2018.) She testified that tamper plugs for the ERT on the meter at 521 Pontiac Avenue along with the module itself had been removed. The silver ring used to support the module was replaced incorrectly. Id. at 13:1-10. She excluded the possibility that the meters had been damaged by National Grid personnel who removed them and transported them to Lincoln. Id. at 16:1-4.

Christopher Lincoln, a senior analyst in the regulatory department, testified about the customer service history of the Laundry Basket account. Id. at 30:20-24. Pertinent to this case, he described file notes indicating that a National Grid employee discovered meter tampering and theft of service at two locations owned by...

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