A new lawsuit alleging that Maine consumers were harmed by “deceptive and misleading” winter disconnection notices issued by Central Maine Power Co. has been filed just as a state investigation into the notices is getting underway.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Cumberland County Superior Court on behalf of three CMP customers, says the notices deceived customers into thinking CMP would shut off their power within days unless they paid past-due bills, when in fact CMP cannot disconnect any customer’s power during the winter without state Public Utilities Commission approval.

Notices sent to CMP customers over the past two years specifically said customers’ electric service could be disconnected without approval of the PUC’s Customer Assistance and Safety Division, the lawsuit contends. It accuses CMP of “systematic and repeated deception and misrepresentation.”

Jeff Russell, a lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said actual and punitive damages are being sought for the notices, although he said the dollar amount has yet to be determined. The lawsuit seeks class-action status, which would allow it to apply to hundreds of other CMP customers.

CMP has said it sent 1,000 of the notices since November.

A CMP representative declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the company had not yet seen a copy.

“We take the issues surrounding disconnections very seriously,” CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said. “It is very concerning that collections communications to customers may have gone out with language that was confusing and misleading. We have commenced an internal investigation into the issue and are cooperating fully with the PUC’s investigation into this matter.”

The lawsuit alleges CMP engaged in fraud, deceit and misrepresentation, and that the company violated Maine’s unfair trade practices law.

One of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit, Joleen Mitchell of Casco, said she has been embroiled in a billing dispute with CMP for two years. Mitchell said she stopped receiving bills from the utility in November and asked repeatedly for them to be sent. Instead, she got a disconnection notice late last fall, and finally a packet of bills this month totaling more than $1,400.

CMP told her she had a month to review the bills and work out a payment plan. Otherwise, her service would be cut off in early February, she said.

Maine law says a residential customer’s electricity can’t be disconnected between Nov. 15 and April 15 without PUC approval.

“This is serious stuff,” Russell said, adding that the notices caused customers distress. “They had to make financial decisions they would not have made otherwise.”

The PUC decided last week to open an investigation into whether CMP has violated rules surrounding disconnection notices in the roughly 1,000 shutoff warnings the utility has issued to customers. The commissioners voted 3-0 on Jan. 21 to open the probe.

On Tuesday, Harry Lanphear, the PUC’s administrative director, said CMP had until the end of the day to file a response explaining its practices and showing cause for why it shouldn’t be subject to financial penalties that could be as high as $500,000. CMP also must tell the PUC how many disconnect notices were sent or delivered.

CMP had not complied with the deadline as of 10 p.m. Tuesday.

At issue is whether the utility ignored a warning the commission issued last winter reminding CMP to make it clear to customers with past-due bills that the company needs PUC approval before it can shut off their power during the winter.

CMP President Doug Herling said Thursday that he was troubled by the “tone” of the recent letters sent to customers, although he didn’t apologize or speculate on whether the wording was legal. Herling said he has ordered an internal company review of the notices.

Prior to Herling’s public expression of dismay, CMP had defended the wording of the shutoff notices through its media representatives.

Also this month, Maine Public Advocate Barry Hobbins, who represents the interests of utility customers before the PUC, criticized CMP for recent shutoff notices it has sent to customers with past-due bills, saying the action amounts to intimidation because the utility can’t shut off power during the winter without permission.

“It’s a scare tactic, it’s wrong and it’s another example of how CMP misleads ratepayers,” Hobbins said about the notices on Jan. 18. “It might not be a crime, but no one can argue that the process is a poor business practice and should not be tolerated.”

CMP has been under fire for billing practices and other customer service issues for more than two years. A Portland Press Herald investigation concluded last year found that the utility mismanaged the rollout of a new billing system and then sought to downplay its own mistakes.

The company has said a cold snap was to blame for a spike in bills for thousands of ratepayers at about the same time the new system went into effect. The PUC has been looking into customer allegations of incorrect billing while also weighing a rate increase that CMP is seeking.

The PUC’s staff issued a report on Jan. 10 saying it found no systemic problem with CMP’s metering and billing systems that would have caused erroneous high energy use on customers’ bills.

Instead, the staff agreed with earlier assessments and CMP’s own analysis that the significant bill increases many customers experienced during the winter of 2017–18 resulted from greater use during a record-breaking cold snap, as well as a double-digit increase in the standard-offer supply price in January 2018.

The report’s findings stunned CMP customers who said they have been waiting for the outcome of the PUC investigation to vindicate them, forcing CMP to issue refunds and wipe away past-due charges. The PUC is scheduled to issue its final ruling on the matter Thursday.

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