Utility services, such as natural gas, electricity, water, and telecommunications services are generally allowed to terminate a customer’s service(s) for failure to pay a bill, provide a security deposit, or for violating a company rule, such as tampering with a meter. However, if a past-due bill is small and it has not been long since last payment, it is less likely that the service will be shut-off.
What Laws Protect Me Against Termination of Service?
Laws that protect you against termination of service are dependent on the entity that owns the service. Utilities may be:
- Privately owned: Governed by state public utility statutes, regulations, and rules.
- Municipally owned: No constitutional limits on the utility.
- Rural Electric Cooperative (REC): The REC has its own specific set of rules, in addition to constitutional limits.
Utility services must use fair discretion and practices in determining a termination of service. Federal consumer protection statutes protect citizens from having their civil rights violated in the process of a utility shutdown.
Generally, if a utility is regulated by the state, the following minimum protections apply:
- Notice: The consumer must be given notice prior to termination of service.
- Limit on when a utility can turn off a service: Small balances, and those lasting less than a few months. Also, bill disputes and termination before a holiday or at a certain time of day are usually prohibited.
- Right to appeal: The consumer has the right to appeal the termination to both the company and the state utility commission.
- Right to deferred payment plan: Some states require the utility to inform the consumer of a reasonable installment payment plan prior to termination.
What Does the Constitution Have to Do with Termination of My Service?
Under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, citizens are afforded due process. In relation to utility services, these companies must give consumers fair notice prior to termination. If notice was not given, the individual was not afforded due process of law.
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What Protections Do I Have Against Termination of My Service?
There are special protections for consumers in most states that encounter cold weather. However, date-based termination moratoria during winter months may be limited to households with the elderly and those with young children.
Other conditions may also need to be met in order to avoid termination during the winter months, such as experiencing financial hardship or entering into a payment plan. If you have a serious illness, you may need a note from your doctor to be included in these special protections.
Utility companies may not terminate your service if you are disputing your bill. If you were undercharged, they cannot demand a lump sum payment and threaten to terminate service.
Do I Need a Lawyer for My Utility Service Problem?
If you believe that your service was wrongfully terminated or that you have a right to dispute your utility charges, then it is in your best interest to consult with a government agency attorney. Your lawyer may help you avoid an unnecessary termination of service, and help you avoid any further problems that come with having a utility service shut down. However, it is important to keep in mind that utility companies tend to have strict arrangements with the public and it takes a serious violation on their part for them to be held liable. So long as you have taken the right steps to maintain your services, then you will be in a better position to argue against the company.