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Texas Commissioner Calls Retail Provider's Customer Service "Pitiful"

October 15, 2013

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Copyright 2010-13
Reporting by Paul Ring •

Texas Public Utility Commissioner Kenneth Anderson called StarTex Power's customer service at issue in a formal complaint case, "pitiful," in discussing the case at the October 3 open meeting.

The formal complaint before the PUCT regarded whether StarTex complied with the provision in the substantive rules to send written notice of a fixed price contract expiration. This matter was complicated by the customer moving into a new address less than one month before contract expiration, and a decision to continue service at the customer's existing address after the Move-In date at the new address (since the customer was not certain that closing at the new address would occur). Furthermore, in response to a question from a StarTex customer service representative during a call to schedule the Move-In and Move-Out, the customer answered affirmatively that they would like their billing address to be their new address, though the customer argued it was not conceivable this could be interpreted as the customer desiring to change their billing address prior to the Move-In on November 18, 2011 (while StarTex changed the billing address immediately).

As discussed further below, the Commission, in a 2-1 vote, granted summary judgment in favor of StarTex, finding that it was not disputed that StarTex sent the contract expiration notice to the customer's new address, though due to when the notice was sent and the customer's Move-In date, the customer averred they never received such written notice (which apparently arrived before their Move-In).

The customer subsequently did not enter a new fixed price contract with StarTex, which meant they were placed on a variable rate.

While the complaint before the PUCT was limited to whether the contract expiration notice was provided in accordance with the rules, the customer alleged other problems with StarTex, including continuing to bill the customer for the old address beyond the agreed Move-Out of November 21 until January of the next year, disconnecting power at the wrong address, and referring the account to a collections agency while the complaint was pending before the PUCT. StarTex compensated the customer for these other mistakes, but did not compensate the customer for an eventual increase in their rate under the month-to-month service the customer was placed on.

The customer alleged that they were overcharged $629.08 as compared to the amount they would have paid had they renewed the fixed price agreement at its expiration.

Addressing the situation broadly, Anderson said that, "I think StarTex's service in this case was pitiful. Their customer service was pitiful and they should be ashamed of themselves."

"For a company that, before it was taken over, used to brag about their customer service, this is really, really pitiful," Anderson said.

Anderson said that on a November 3, 2011 call with StarTex, the customer made clear what their problem was during the call (needing to have electricity at Move-In but not being sure that closing would occur), but found unresponsive a StarTex customer service representative's answers. Anderson said that had he been this customer, he would have switched providers right then, "to somebody who can actually provide customer service."

Anderson further described StarTex's customer service here as, "poor, poor, poor, poor customer service."

"No doubt it's because they're now owned by a big ugly utility, as opposed to the nimble entrepreneurs," Anderson said.

The question before the PUCT at the October 3 open meeting was StarTex's motion for summary decision and dismissal of the complaint.

Because it was not disputed that StarTex sent the customer a fixed contract expiration notice, although it was sent to the new address based on the customer's statement for this to be the billing address, Chairman Donna Nelson and Commissioner Brandy Marty voted to grant summary judgment and dismiss the complaint. Nelson noted, in particular, that the substantive rules do not require StarTex to prove that the customer received notice, only that the notice was sent. Nelson further noted that the customer had effective notice of the fixed price expiration from several explicit reminders from the customer service rep on the November 3 call, as well as notices included with the customer's bill.

While no facts were disputed, Anderson said that StarTex had not shown that it was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law:

"While the material facts may be undisputed, StarTex has not shown that the notice it provided was sufficient to comply with the requirements of P.U.C. SUBST. R. 25.475(e); therefore, StarTex has not established that it is entitled to a decision as a matter of law," Anderson said in a dissent, finding that the interpretation of P.U.C. SUBST. R. 25.475(e) is a legal issue that remains to be adjudicated.

Docket No. 40934

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