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PSC Staff Seek Revocation Of Another Retail Supplier's License, $500,000 Fine

Staff Again Asserts: "Fair Dealing Dictates That Residential Customers Receive Equally Fair Treatment," As Non-Residential Customers

October 16, 2020

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Commentary by Paul Ring •

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In newly filed testimony in a Maryland PSC complaint proceeding filed by PSC Staff ("Staff") against Atlantic Energy MD LLC ("Atlantic"), Staff recommends that the license of Atlantic be revoked and that the company be subject to a civil penalty in the amount of $500,000.

Atlantic Energy provided the following statement concerning the matter:

"Atlantic Energy previously addressed many of the issues raised by the Staff and OPC testimony in our initial Answer filed in this case in 2019. We take sales quality assurance seriously and our multi-tiered sales verification processes go beyond those required by the applicable regulations. To the extent we receive customer complaints or concerns, we attempt to fully resolve them. We will continue to address any concerns raised by the Maryland PSC Staff and OPC, and we look forward to providing our response to the testimony in accordance with the procedural schedule for this ongoing proceeding."

Atlantic's prior answer to the initial complaint is discussed in our prior story here. After initially dismissing Staff's complaint, the PSC later re-opened it, citing new allegations from the Office of People's Counsel.

In the new testimony, a witness for Staff alleged, "Atlantic engaged in marketing or trade practices that are 11 unfair, false, misleading, or deceptive in violation of COMAR ... Atlantic failed to acquire affirmative confirmation by a customer before enrolling that customer in violation of COMAR and COMAR 14"

A witness for Staff alleged, "The incidence and similarity of the violations, as well as the Company’s failure to immediately reform its practices, indicates a systemic pattern and practice of violations by Atlantic."

Citing complaints to the PSC's Consumer Affairs Division (CAD), Staff alleged that, "there are numerous allegations that Atlantic’s agents make statements in the course of door to door sales calls that are false and misleading in violation of COMAR and"

Notably, as discussed below, Staff alleges that multiple complainants have alleged that an agent for Atlantic has represented themself as being from the state's EmPOWER Maryland program

Staff alleged, "The CAD disputes referenced above reveal a high degree of similarity in the nature of the behaviors alleged. Numerous agents working for Atlantic appear to be making very similar statements. In addition to the two instances of general 12 misrepresentation, there are 32 allegations that the agents stated they were from the government, supporting a government program, or from a utility or Constellation."

Staff alleged, "One could argue that an isolated allegation that an agent stated they were with a utility could be ascribed to a mistake by the customer, but here there are numerous, very similar, allegations that Atlantic agents are representing themselves as government or utility employees engaged in specific programs. I find the particular complaints credible because of their frequency and similarity. I find it compelling that so many different customers are complaining about agents making very specific claims. In all the complaints I have reviewed across several different suppliers, rarely have I seen a complaint that the agent stated they were with the government. Again, these complaints are all the more believable as they involve multiple customers making very similar complaints. Finally, I do not recall a single other supplier ever having received a complaint that the agent was representing EmPOWER Maryland. I find it implausible that multiple customers would invent such similar complaints."

As as example of a CAD complaint, Staff alleged, "In complaint number 118336020-L, the customer claimed she was told by the agent that the agent was following up for BGE who bought out Atlantic, that the agent was not at the customer’s home to sell anything, and that the customer was due some rewards from BGE."

Staff alleged, "In complaint number 2183366846-W, the customer claimed the agent stated that Atlantic was providing free light bulbs to support a State of Maryland program."

Staff alleged, "In complaint number 318337317-L, the customer claimed the agent claimed to be from BGE, stated that that BGE charged many customers too much money, and stated that the account holder would receive a refund check."

Staff alleged, "Complaint number 318337340-W included an email claiming an Atlantic agent came to his door representing herself as an agent of EmPOWER Maryland. The email further explained that the agent stated EmPOWER was all about getting BGE customers to change over from fossil fuels, and it would not cost the customer a thing."

Staff alleged, "In complaint number 818340415-W, the customer claimed the Atlantic agent stated he was with a state program called EmPOWER Maryland and was there to replace his lightbulbs at no charge."

Staff alleged, "In complaint number 918340636-W, the customer claimed the Atlantic agent claimed to be part of the EmPOWER Maryland program."

Staff also alleged, "Complaint number 318337422-L includes a November 14, 2017 letter from Atlantic that states, 'You will receive cash back from utility rebates.' This statement is factually untrue. In Atlantic’s response to Staff Data Request 3, the Company stated that '[t]he only customer that referenced the letter in question in any communication with Atlantic or a complaint was the customer who filed Complaint No. 318337422-L.' However, complaint number 219342932-W also included a letter dated April 19, 2018 that included the exact same language, 'You will receive cash back from utility rebates.' Given that the Company is making misrepresentations and providing inaccurate Data Request responses, I see no reason to believe any statement made by the Company. Moreover, given all of the allegations of Atlantic’s agents representing themselves as being part of a utility energy savings program, it is all the more believable that Atlantic would issue a letter including a misleading statement about utility rebates."

Staff also alleged that, "Atlantic has admitted to delayed cancellations."

Staff said, "COMAR and specifically requires that a supplier shall process a non-residential customer’s request to cancel supply services not later than the end of the second utility business day after the customer's cancellation request."

Staff alleged, "Fair dealing dictates that residential customers receive equally fair treatment."

Staff alleged, "These delays are especially troubling as in every instance of a CAD complaint where I was able to see a price per kWh or therm charged by Atlantic, the rates were well in excess of the utility rates. It is entirely possible that hundreds, or even thousands of other customers were subjected to these delayed cancellations. If the CAD complaints are an indication, in every event the delay would have benefitted the Company at the expense of the consumers."

Staff alleged that Atlantic engaged in instances of unauthorized enrollment or 'slamming', as Staff alleged, "Atlantic received 'authorization' for persons other than the customer as required by COMAR and COMAR"

Case 9624

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