A group of Central Maine Power customers seeking to block the utility from sending disconnect notices has failed to convince a judge that the court system is the proper place to arbitrate the matter.

In a Feb. 22 ruling, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy noted the Maine Public Utilities Commission has jurisdiction over regulated utilities and is in the process of investigating CMP’s billing practices. She denied a request for a temporary restraining order and postponed any further action until November, closer to when the PUC probe is set to wrap up.

The ruling was a victory for CMP and its parent company, Avangrid, and a setback for aggrieved customers who want to file a class-action lawsuit against the power companies over high and irregular bills.

“Obviously I’m very disappointed by the judge’s decision,” Sumner Lipman, an attorney representing the customers, said on Tuesday. “It doesn’t throw us out of court. But it slows things down. It delays things nine months.”

The disconnect case and the effort to gain class-action status are separate but related tussles in the larger battle over determining why tens of thousands of customers experienced problems after CMP switched to a new billing system in October of 2017, and who was responsible for the failures.

Last July, 200 customers who believe they have been overcharged on their electricity bills came together to seek a class-action lawsuit against the company. A trio of law firms, including Lipman, Napoli Shkolnik of New York City and Trafton, Matzen, Belleau and Frenette of Auburn are working on the case.

A month later, four customers filed the follow-up lawsuit, which alleged that CMP knowingly overcharged them and then tried to disconnect three of them in violation of PUC rules.

CMP and Avangrid argued that the case should be dismissed, because the PUC has primary jurisdiction over such matters. The judge agreed, noting that the PUC already is dealing with disconnect issue and last April had ordered CMP not to send notices to home customers who met certain eligibility requirements. She also noted that so many customers were affected by the larger billing issues that the PUC was the right venue. Other interested parties, such as the Office of Public Advocate, she wrote, could participate there.

“Given that the PUC has exclusive authority to regulate public utilities,” Justice Murphy wrote, “and that an investigation into CMP’s billing practices and customer response is currently ongoing, prudence would suggest that this court defer to the PUC’s authority and refrain from proceeding in this matter until the PUC’s investigation is complete.”

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

[email protected]

[email protected]

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