Friday, March 23, 2012

With the cold weather season at an end, utilities that had been barred from cutting off heat or power to low income Iowans can start demanding back payment of winter bills and threatening a shut-off.

But recent research from the University of Iowa College of Law argues that such threats for utility debts from long in the past are a coercive tactic that violates the utility’s public responsibilities for delivering essential services. Mario Kladis, a third-year law student at the UI, believes the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) should prohibit such threats and a five-year statute of limitations should be applied to unpaid utility bills.

“Adopting such a rule would promote the principles and practices of statutes of limitations and would better protect consumers from coercive debt collection,” Kladis writes in his article, “Public Utilities and the Statute of Limitations,” published in the current issue of the Iowa Law Review.

Kladis says statues of limitations are used in many areas of the law, particularly criminal law, out of an intended sense of fairness. Records can get lost, memories fade, witnesses die or disappear, so prosecuting a person for long-ago crimes is unfair to the defendant, according to decisions by the Iowa Supreme Court.

He believes this spirit is violated when utilities try to collect on long unpaid bills while threatening the cut off of an essential service it provides through a legally granted monopoly.

He says there is a precedent for such an interpretation of the rule in the Utilities Board record, in a 1987 case called Lorenzen v. Iowa-Illinois Gas & Electric. In that decision, the board applied the statute of limitations rule and declined to force a homeowner to pay uncollected bills that were more than five years old. Unfortunately, he says the policy outlined in Lorenzen has never been formally adopted as an administrative rule, which the IUB is allowed to do and he believes should do now.

Adopting such a rule would also have a social benefit, he said. For instance, he says when homeless Iowans attempting to move out from a shelter, utility service denials due to old, unpaid bills can make it impossible for them to get housing and might even force them to return to the shelter. Given that many shelters are taxpayer funded, applying a statute of limitations would not only help homeless people reestablish themselves, but would save tax money.