A state appeals court has ruled a landlord can't sue a gas company over its tenant billing practices because the dispute doesn’t belong in court, but rather before the state commission that oversees public utilities.
Greenside Properties LLC filed a complaint against Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company in Cook County Circuit Court in 2016, alleging fraud and deceptive trade practices with respect to tenant billing practices. Cook County Circuit Judge Diane J. Larsen dismissed that lawsuit, saying it was a matter for the Illinois Commerce Commission.
Greenside appealed that ruling, which the First District Appellate Court upheld in an opinion issued Nov. 28.
Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. wrote the panel’s opinion; justices Aurelia Pucinski and Mary Anne Mason concurred.
In the original complaint, Greenside said Peoples Gas broke the law with respect to its property on 102nd Street in Chicago. When Greenside leases one of its properties, it cancels natural gas service with Peoples Gas and tells the tenant to make arrangements with the utility. It did so with the property in question in November 2013, after Peoples Gas sent Greenside a bill at the end of October. Greenside said it didn’t hear anything on the matter until the following June, when Peoples sent a bill for $1,809.
Greenside also said it experienced similar problems with several of its other properties around the same time, alleging Peoples generated bills without sending them and refusing to honor a request for termination of service. The landlord took no issue with the amounts charged, only maintaining the tenants should be the ones responsible for the payments.
In the opinion, Neville explained the state’s Public Utilities Act, which establishes the Illinois Commerce Commission’s duties and jurisdiction, and said that law, plus prior Illinois State Supreme Court decisions, establish the landlord must take its dispute with the utility to the ICC, and can’t sue in court.
Greenside based its appeal on the 2011 decision in Sheffler v. Commonwealth Edison, a case in which plaintiffs sought compensation for losses after ComEd failed to restore power within 24 hours after a 2007 storm. The court dismissed the complaint, finding it directly related to the Commission’s rate-setting power for electrical power service. Greenside said the court’s dismissal was affirmed before discussing the Commission’s jurisdiction, but Neville found both parties in Sheffler briefed and argued that issue, making the ruling a useful precedent.
Further, Neville wrote, the Supreme Court reasserted the Sheffler analysis in its 2014 opinion on State of Illinois ex rel. Pusateri v. Peoples Gas Light & Coke Co., which allows it to apply despite Greenside’s argument that its complaint is not as complex as the Sheffler service disruption issue.
“The Illinois Administrative Code shows that the Commission treats these issues as matters falling under its authority,” Neville wrote. “As currently amended, one section of the Administrative Code provides: ‘The utility shall not hold the landlord/property manager responsible for an amount owing to the utility by any tenant.’ ”
The justices said amendments to the administrative code didn’t alter substantive rights related to Greenside’s complaint or appeal, but actually “clarify the Commission’s jurisdiction and the procedures for obtaining remedies for utilities’ mistakes and misconduct.”
Ultimately, with Greenside’s complaint classified as a request for reparations in the form of compensation for billing errors, the appellate panel said the matter belongs in front of the ICC, and upheld the circuit court’s dismissal of the complaint.
Greenside was represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of James W. Calvo & Associates, of Naperville.
Peoples Gas was defended by the firm of Quarles & Brady LLC, of Chicago.