Justia Pennsylvania Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Utilities Law

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City of Lancaster (“the City”) enacted a measure (“Ordinance 16-2013”) that sought to superimpose municipal requirements upon state-regulated utilities that used the City’s rights-of-way to deliver services. PPL Electric Utilities Corp. (“PPL”) challenged the Ordinance, contending, inter alia, that it intruded upon, and thus was preempted by, the Code. The Commonwealth Court largely agreed, upholding PPL’s challenge with regard to all but one of the challenged provisions of the Ordinance. The provision that the Commonwealth Court upheld authorized the City to impose an “annual occupancy fee” upon utilities that utilize its municipal rights-of-way. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that all of the provisions challenged by PPL, including the annual occupancy fee, were preempted by the Code. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s decision except with respect to its allowance for the annual occupancy fee, which latter ruling was reversed. View "PPL Elec. Utilities v. City of Lancaster, et al -" on Justia Law

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The issues this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on: (1) whether the penalty imposed against HIKO Energy, LLC (HIKO) was so grossly disproportionate as to violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions; (2) whether the penalty impermissibly punished HIKO for litigating; and (3) whether the Pennsylvania Utility Commission (PUC) abused its discretion in imposing a penalty which was not supported by substantial evidence. The Supreme Court concluded HIKO waived its constitutional challenge to the civil penalty in this case, the penalty was not imposed as a punishment against HIKO for opting to litigate its case, and that the PUC’s conclusions in support of imposing the penalty were supported by substantial evidence. View "HIKO Energy, Aplt. v. PA PUC" on Justia Law

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The issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this case concerned whether counties could advance common law claims seeking legal redress against telecommunications companies for alleged deficiencies in their administration of fees associated with 911 emergency communication services. The Supreme Court concluded the Legislature balanced counties’ interests against those of other co-participants enlisted under the 911 Act and provided sufficient indicia evincing its intention to centralize enforcement authority in the relevant state agency. "Although we realize that the County may have been disadvantaged by PEMA’s apparent failure to act, this unfortunate circumstance does not control the judicial construction of a legislative enactment." Thus, the Court reversed the Commonwealth Court, and reinstated the order of the court of common pleas. View "Co. of Butler v. Centurylink, et al.." on Justia Law

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The issue presented to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this appeal centered on whether producers of natural gas from certain vertical wells were subject to assessment of a yearly impact fee established by Chapter 23 of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act (“Act 13”). The vertical wells that at issue used the hydraulic fracturing process ("fracking") to extract natural gas through a vertical well bore from Marcellus Shale. Specifically, the issue centered on whether an impact fee would be assessed whenever a vertical well’s production exceeded an average of 90,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day for even one month of the year, or whether the well must exceed this production threshold in every month of the year, for the fee to be imposed. After careful review, the Supreme Court concluded that, under the relevant provisions of Act 13, the impact fee would be imposed on such wells if their production exceeds 90,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day for even one month of the year, as found by the Public Utility Commission (“PUC”). Therefore, the Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s order, which had reversed the PUC; the PUC's order was reinstated. View "PA Independent Oil & Gas Assoc. v. PUC" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review centered on the language of the utility service facilities exception ("Utility Exception") to governmental immunity contained in the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act ("Tort Claims Act"). The Commonwealth Court concluded that where a dangerous condition of the facilities of a utility system is created by the negligent action or inaction of a local agency or its employees, the Utility Exception did not apply. Because the Commonwealth Court misconstrued both the Utility Exception and the gravamen of the lawsuit in question, the Supreme Court reversed. View "Metropolitan Edison v. City of Reading" on Justia Law

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On Friday, January 9, 2009, after business hours, an unidentified motor vehicle crashed into and felled a utility pole carrying electric lines owned and operated by Duquesne Light. Several wires were connected to Burton L. Hirsh’s Funeral Home, and at least one was stripped from the attachment point to the building’s electrical system located on the structure. In addition to the funeral home, a number of other local buildings lost power as a result of the incident, although no structure other than Hirsh’s was connected directly to the downed pole. The issue this case presented for the Supreme Court's review, as framed by appellant, was “[w]hether the Superior Court erred in imposing upon electric utilities a burdensome and unprecedented duty to enter customers’ premises and inspect customers’ electrical facilities before restoring power after an outage” The Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court, finding that Duquesne Light failed to adequately confront the common-law duties invoked by Hirsh or the warnings dynamic tempering the Superior Court’s ruling. The Superior Court did not err to the extent that it recognized a duty, on the part of an electric service provider, to take reasonable measures to avert harm in a scenario in which the utility has actual or constructive knowledge of a dangerous condition impacting a customer’s electrical system, occasioned by fallen and intermixed electrical lines proximate to the customer’s premises. The Court offered no opinion as to whether Duquesne Light had actual or constructive knowledge of an unreasonable risk in this scenario, since the electric company’s summary judgment effort was not staged in a manner which would have elicited an informed determination on such point. View "Alderwoods (PA), Inc. v. Duquesne Light" on Justia Law

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The primary question this case presented for the Supreme Court's review was whether a municipal authority could exercise its eminent domain powers to condemn an easement over privately-owned land, where the sole purpose of the easement is to supply a private developer with land to install sewer drainage facilities needed for a proposed private residential subdivision. "While this determination may seem to interfere with the ability of municipal water and/or sewer authorities to expand their operations under circumstances where, as here, there is an overarching nexus between the taking and private development, it is not this Court’s function to ameliorate such difficulties by departing from the statutory text. [. . .] The Legislature’s decision to exempt regulated public utilities, but not municipal authorities, from the preclusive rule set forth in Section 204(a) demonstrates that it intended to allow – within constitutional limitations – the continued use of eminent domain for the provision of public services such as water and sewer access in tandem with private development for a limited, defined class of condemnors. As RAWA is not within that class, its condemnation of the drainage easement is in violation of PRPA." View "Reading Area Wat Auth v. Schuyl River Grwy, et al" on Justia Law

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The issue on appeal before the Supreme Court in this case centered on the limits of the Public Utility Commission's (PUC) authority to allocate costs associated with a rail-highway crossing project. The Commonwealth Court held that the Commission could not allocate costs to a transportation utility that regularly uses a railroad-crossing site and does not own real estate or properties there. The Commission and Intervenors argued that the PUC has broad discretion not only to determine the allocation of costs to "concerned parties," but also to determine which parties are "concerned" in the first instance. Counterbalancing the Commission's and Intervenors' remarks about equities, Norfolk Southern Railway questioned why it should contribute to the remediation of deteriorating infrastructure over which it had no control. Upon review, the Supreme Court held that a transportation utility need not own facilities at a rail-highway crossing to be a concerned party for purposes of the PUC's cost-allocation jurisdiction and authority, at least where the utility conducts regular operations at the crossing and may enforce an easement-based right of way. View "Norfolk Southern Railway v. PUC" on Justia Law