Judge Reduces Light Bill,
Gives Couple a Rare Bright Spot

Friday, November 06, 2009
By Paula Reed Ward,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

They weren’t asking Duquesne Light to do away with the deposit they were required to pay.

The $600 fee — an average of two months’ bills — was expected, given that the couple already owed the electric utility nearly $5,000 in arrears.

Gary and Cara Duvall, who are in the midst of a bankruptcy case stemming from tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid medical debt, just wanted Duquesne Light to let them pay the deposit over six months — $100 at a time.

But the company fought the prospect — fearful of creating an untenable precedent — and ultimately won. And lost.

At a hearing yesterday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge M. Bruce McCullough ruled that the Whitaker couple would be required to pay only $100.

There would be no monthly installments.

“I’m perfectly happy with that result,” said Peter Ashcroft, the attorney representing Duquesne Light. “The facts are very heartfelt. I felt for those facts and so does Duquesne Light. [But] we don’t want them to ask to pay it in installments because that just opens Pandora’s box.”

Before October 2008, Ms. Duvall, 46, worked as a licensed practical nurse, and her husband, 51, was an electrician.

While he said that they always lived paycheck to paycheck — they even filed for bankruptcy before in 2000 — the Duvalls mostly kept up with their bills.

But then, his wife became ill. Over a period of several months, she had a number of ministrokes, congestive heart failure, kidney failure and then went blind. That’s not to mention that she was already diabetic.

Then Mr. Duvall, also diabetic, required a triple bypass in April.

“We went from two incomes to one income to none,” he said.

Most of their creditors worked with the couple. They haven’t made a mortgage payment in many months, but the lien holder is working with them, allowing the Duvalls to put their home up for sale and then use the proceeds to meet their back payments.

They filed for bankruptcy in October and claim approximately $54,000 in unpaid bills. The Duvalls expect those debts to be erased when the Chapter 7 filing is discharged in several months.

But they still had the immediate problem of facing the shutoff of their electric service.

The Duvalls’ attorney, Lauren Lamb, filed a motion in court last week, asking that the $600 deposit be paid in monthly installments.

She argued that the bulk payment for her clients just wasn’t feasible, and that the prospect of losing their electricity could be life threatening.

Because both Mr. and Mrs. Duvall are diabetic, they must be able to have refrigeration for their insulin. In addition to that, their home has electric heat.

Ms. Lamb told Judge McCullough that the Duvalls’ annual income is only $30 over the federal poverty line. They have two teenage daughters.

But Mr. Ashcroft, the attorney for Duquesne Light, said that allowing monthly payments would be an administrative nightmare for his client.

As Mr. Ashcroft launched into his defense that the utility company has the right to terminate service without the deposit, Judge McCullough cut him off.

“Stop arguing,” the judge said. He then reduced the entire deposit to just $100.

It was a huge relief to Mr. Duvall.

“It’s a great victory,” he said. “I was really shocked.”

Ms. Lamb said she understands Duquesne Light’s position.

“It’s a business, and there have to be guidelines in order for them to be able to stay afloat,” she said. “We’re fortunate that at bankruptcy court, you don’t always have to look at the business perspective.”

Mr. Duvall, who is back to working part-time, is pleased that he and his wife will soon be able to move on.

“They’re the exact type of people the laws are meant to protect,” Ms. Lamb said. “Sure, there are a few people out there who abuse the system. But it’s not accurate to think that people in this situation haven’t done everything they can to try to avoid it.”

Joseph Vallarian, a Duquesne Light spokesman, said he could not comment specifically on the Duvalls’ account, but he did say that his company offers a variety of programs to protect customers from termination.

He noted the Customer Assistance Program, which the Duvalls once were enrolled in, bases customers’ monthly bills on their ability to pay. In addition, Mr. Vallarian said, as they continue to make successful payments, it reduces past arrearages.

“There are plenty of programs out there where people should not have their service cut off,” he said. “All a customer has to do is call us.”

The phone number to call is 1-888-393-7600.

Paula Reed Ward can be reached at pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.