Lawyers representing frustrated ratepayers expanded a lawsuit against Central Maine Power on Thursday, naming the company president and the Spanish holding company that owns it as defendants and accusing them of fraud and racketeering.

The plaintiffs claim that Douglas Herling, a 35-year CMP employee who now serves as its president, knew about the errors in its new billing system but lied about its shortcomings in mass mailings to customers in January, deceiving them into a false sense of ease about their billing concerns.

The amendment filed Thursday also adds Iberdrola, a Spanish business that owns CMP’s corporate parent, Avangrid of Connecticut. According to the lawyers, the companies worked in concert, with each knowing of the errors in the billing system and intentionally misleading customers to overpay.

Lisa MacLeod, who makes yogurt from goat milk at Tourmaline Hill Farm in Greenwood, is one of the certified members of the class action lawsuit against CMP that was expanded Thursday with the addition of two members, bringing the total to six. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“It is time the citizens of Maine receive some relief from these electricity bills that are crippling so many families,” said Scarborough attorney Sumner Lipman, one of the lead attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “This has gone on far too long without any resolution.”

CMP spokeswoman Catharine Hartnett said Thursday that the company does not comment on pending litigation. The company previously acknowledged the changeover to the new billing system led to problems, but says that most have been resolved and that it is working to address those that linger.

But attorneys from three law firms are seeking class action status for customers claiming that CMP, with help from its corporate owners, knew about the billing system problems but allowed customers to believe they were to blame for their high bills.

The lawyers also claim CMP, at the direction of Avangrid and Iberdrola, used abusive collection practices to bully customers into paying bills they didn’t deserve, using tactics ranging from repeated disconnection threats to withdrawing payments of contested bills from customer bank accounts.

Plaintiffs claim a pattern of racketeering activity involving mail and wire fraud against CMP customers that includes mailing and emailing inaccurate bills and conducting unapproved bank withdrawals, phone calls and fraudulent letters.

If the judge allows them to stay, the additional charges open the door for the lawyers to seek more money in damages for their clients – up to three times the amount they were overbilled, plus punitive damages and possibly money customers spent investigating their rising bills if CMP knowingly gave them false reasons.

Other lawyers who try complex litigation cases outside of Maine say successful class action lawsuits are rare, but not impossible. The courts usually demand a higher level of pleading, said Allan Kanner, the New Orleans attorney who is president of the Class Action Trial Lawyers Association.

But Benjamin Brown, a partner at Cohen Milstein in Washington, D.C., who is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School, where he teaches complex litigation, said the decision to expand the class action could lead to delays, and thus is not a step that any lawyer would take lightly.

“It’s not uncommon to add new defendants and claims as discovery progresses and lawyers learn more about the facts of the case,” Brown said. “Doing so, however, would constitute a significant development in the litigation. These are serious charges.”

The law firms are seeking to add two new plaintiffs to the four they already have selected to represent the class of customers who believe they have been wronged by CMP billing practices.

Sylvia Krainin flew from Florida back to her summer home in Naples to meet with CMP and to hire an electrician after billing representatives told her she was to blame for an eight-fold increase in a monthly electric bill for months when no one even lived in her home, Lipman said.

In 2016, before the new billing system, Krainin’s February bill for her unoccupied house was $33.43. Two years later, after the rollout of the troubled billing system, Krainin’s February bill was $291.14, despite the house being closed up for the winter in exactly the same way.

In January 2019, Sally Trussell got a $1,484.98 bill for her unoccupied Scarborough condominium – more than what she had paid for a year’s worth of energy from September 2017 to August 2018, Lipman asserts in the amended legal claim.

Trussell got so nervous about her rising bills that she canceled her AutoPay plan on Feb. 1. But her banking records show that a month later, on March 12, CMP made an unauthorized deduction from her account for $2,047.18 anyway, Lipman said.

CMP’s billing problem began in the fall of 2017, after replacing an aging data management system. Within days, customers were receiving erroneous bills. Soon, 97,000 of the company’s roughly 620,000 customers were sent bills at least 50 percent higher than for the same three-month period the previous winter.

Some residential and commercial ratepayers got no bills at all, or months worth of estimated bills. Once the bills caught up with them, many could no longer afford the eventual balance.

A violent storm on Oct. 30, 2017 – the same day as the cutover to the new billing system – led to record power outages, followed by a brutal, early winter cold spell that coincided with a double-digit jump in electricity supply prices.

These events conspired to magnify problems and confound efforts to find the root cause of the high bills. In all, 59 distinct types of billing errors affecting more than 100,000 customers were discovered, the PUC said.

 


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