Settlement will require gas company to repay money to customers

Published 9:13 pm Friday, July 25, 2014

A recent settlement between the Alabama Attorney General’s office and ThompsonGas-Smokies LLC and Suburban Gas Propane Partners LLC could affect Chilton County residents.

The Attorney General’s complaint alleged that in May 2012 Thompson and Suburban billed about 2,000 of their customers a minimum usage or non-usage fee ranging from $192.80 to $706.80, according to a press release.

Many of these customers were the result of Thompson’s and Suburban’s acquisition of other propane companies, with which the customers had varying contracts that did not necessarily provide for the charging of such fees.

“Alabama law requires that our consumers be able to rely upon contracts and that they be provided clear notice of any changes that will incur new fees,” Attorney General Luther Strange said. “We will not allow businesses to impose fees on consumers who were operating under a contract that did not provide for such fees. I am pleased that consumers in this case will receive refunds and that abusive practices will no longer be conducted.”

ThompsonGas operates an office in Clanton, with a regional headquarters in Columbiana.

Sharon Pledger of Clanton was one of the ThompsonGas customers who received a “no annual usage fee” bill. Hers was in the amount of $280.80 and received in April 2012.

“I came to the conclusion that it was a mistake,” said Pledger, who was used to paying only about $55 to lease the tank. “So I went to the office, but they said, ‘No, we’re charging you.’”

Pledger refused to pay the fee and continued to receive late notices and interest statements. By September 2012, her bill had increased by about $50 because of interest.

Pledger said the communication bordered on harassment, as it escalated to threats to report the overdue balance to credit agencies.

Pledger contacted the local district attorney and probate judge offices, who directed her to the attorney general’s office. She praised their professionalism, as she was kept updated about the progress of the case–and when the $500,000 settlement was reached.

The consent decree provides refunds to Alabama consumers and measures to prevent recurrence of the alleged violations.

Thompson and Suburban will send a letter to affected customers notifying them of the refund amount due to them, as well as information about procedures to contest the amount. Thompson and Suburban also agreed to clear the balance on any of the incorrectly charged fees that were not paid, and to pay customers for gas that was in removed tanks.

Pledger said she was advised not to pay the fee, but some customers did. Her amount due eventually reached $385.76, in January 2013, before she stopped receiving bills.

Any future fee changes to new or existing customers must be clearly set out in a prominent notice mailed to consumers.

“That’s all I wanted, is for people to get their money back,” Pledger said. “The main thing is the system worked. I’m so thrilled that the system worked.

“I never dreamed it would turn into something like this. I just knew I wasn’t going to pay it, and they weren’t going to put it on my credit.”