CorpComm Calls for Quick Change to Shutoff Rules After Stephanie Pullman's Death

Chairman Bob Burns.
Chairman Bob Burns. Arizona Corporation Commission
The Arizona Corporation Commission is pushing for quick changes to its rules on when and how regulated electric utilities can shut off people's power, after news broke this week that a 72-year-old woman died in her home last year after Arizona Public Service cut her service.

On Friday, Chairman Bob Burns formally asked CorpComm staff to review and revise parts of the Arizona Administrative Code that govern electric utility shutoffs. Proposed changes are due at the end of the business day on Tuesday, June 18, and commissioners are expected to discuss and vote on those changes on Thursday, June 20, at a staff open meeting.

A day earlier, fellow Commissioners Boyd Dunn and Justin Olson asked the CorpComm to investigate and review those same rules in state code, albeit without the expedited timeline. Their filings came a few hours after Phoenix New Times reported that 72-year-old Stephanie Pullman died of heat-related causes in her home last September after APS cut off her electricity for $51 owed. That day, outside temperatures were at least 105 degrees.

Commissioner Leah Marquez Peterson on Friday echoed those requests for a review of policies, but she also asked for a detailed demographic review of disconnection numbers from staff. She wanted to know: Were customers elderly? How many didn't speak English as their first language? How many had seen significant increases in their bills? Marquez also requested an internal investigation into how CorpComm staff handled Pullman's disconnection.

Burns' request for changes came in the form of an emergency request for rule-making. Holly Ward, a spokesperson for the CorpComm, noted that emergency requests for rule-making are rare. Rule-making typically takes six months to a year, she added.

Burns also asked staff to look into whether or not termination rules should be changed for other utilities, like gas, water, and telephone service.

Dunn's Thursday request, which homed in on APS, asked other Commission-regulated utilities to submit their disconnection policies to the CorpComm, to see whether utilities actually abide by their own rules. Olson's request asked staff to look into the specific circumstances surrounding Pullman's death.

Stephanie Pullman
Courtesy of Stephanie Pullman's family
The Arizona Administrative Code lays out just three situations under which utilities cannot shut off power to customers who are behind on their bills (start with page 70). One is noticeably onerous, requiring customers to provide medical documentation proving that losing electricity would be dangerous to their health. Another is alarmingly vague: "where weather will be especially dangerous to health as defined or as determined by the Commission."

The CorpComm defines such weather as days when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts temperatures below 32 degrees for the following day — a useless limit for the deadly summer heat in the Valley of the Sun. Separately, it allows the CorpComm to "determine that other weather conditions are especially dangerous to health as the need arises," but that vague definition fails to mention heat.

The Arizona Administrative Code also states that "residential service to ill, elderly, or handicapped persons who have an inability to pay will not be terminated" until "the customer has been informed of the availability of funds from various government and social assistance agencies of which the utility is aware" and "a third part previously designated by the customer has been notified and has not made arrangements to pay the outstanding utility bill."

Another section lays out notification requirements before the utility cuts off service, including the information that notifications must contain and their timing (five days' notice). "Service may only be disconnected in conjunction with a personal visit to the premises by an authorized representative of the utility," it adds.

Chairman Bob Burns.
Arizona Corporation Commission
When New Times asked APS for its written policy regarding terminations prior to publishing Pullman's story, the utility pointed to these rules, among other company policies. But it is not clear that APS followed state-mandated steps before cutting off Pullman's power. The CorpComm's records of a complaint filed by her daughter, which included an APS-submitted timeline of transactions and interactions between Pullman and the utility, say nothing about informing Pullman of available funds or notifying a third party.

Those records claim that APS delivered door-hangers; whether those deliveries qualify as "a personal visit to the premises by an authorized representative of the utility" is unclear. The records do not explicitly mention such a visit.

As the summer heats up, these are the rules that commissioners say they want to investigate and potentially change — and soon. 

In 2018, APS cut power to customers more than 39,000 times from May through September. Pullman was one of those cases.

Although the CorpComm appears to be taking swift action now to investigate the circumstances of Pullman's death, it has known since September, nine months ago, that Pullman died in her home after APS cut her power.

Jeanine Smith, one of Pullman's two daughters, filed an informal complaint with the CorpComm on September 17, 2018, 10 days after her mother's electricity was cut and three days after her mother was found dead in her home in Sun City West. She wanted the CorpComm's rules related to power shutoffs and notice requirements. Smith also called APS to put her mother's bill in her name.

In a record of that complaint, CorpComm investigator Trish Meeter, who responded to Smith, noted that Pullman was found dead in the home and that service had been disconnected. Meeter noted later in September that Smith said that after scouring her mother's house, she was unable to find a disconnect notice from APS. 

Meeter's notes included correspondence with APS "consumer advocate" Elizabeth McFall, who said she spoke with Smith on October 1, 2018, "to discuss her concerns." She gave Smith her number and "encouraged her to contact me at a convenient time for her."

In response to a question about why the CorpComm didn't take action then, CorpComm spokesperson Ward wrote in an email, "Based on our review of the record, it shows the Commission was aware of Ms. Pullman’s death, but it was not clear when her daughter, Jeanine Smith, called the Commission that the death was related to the disconnection."

That changed this week, after news reports came out. "We became aware there could be a link between the death and the disconnection," Ward wrote.

The news of Pullman's death has also sparked action and a broader discussion.

APS announced Thursday, two days after New Times emailed questions about Pullman's death to its spokespeople, that it would suspend power shutoffs for unpaid bills so it could examine its policies. It claimed its decision was driven by factors including public comments, summer heat, and "reports of a 2018 customer death in which heat may have been a contributing factor after electricity service was disconnected."

The CorpComm records show that the utility, too, was alerted to Pullman's death nine months ago, when Smith called in September.

Joe Barrios, spokesman for Tucson Electric Power, which is regulated by the CorpComm, said on Friday the company is temporarily suspending disconnections "for customers who fall behind on bill payments" while the CorpComm reviews shutoff rules. Its parent company, UNS Electric Inc., is doing the same, it said Friday.

Policymakers and state leaders are talking about potential future legislation to set parameters for when utilities can and cannot disconnect their customers from power.

Maricopa County's other major electricity provider, Salt River Project, is a quasi-municipality, and so it is not subject to the CorpComm's rules. A state law, however, would cover that utility. During the last legislative session, a bill that would have barred electricity shutoffs when temperatures were below 32 degrees Fahrenheit or above 90 degrees was proposed, but it never made it out of committee.

According to Ward, any enforcement for violations of code would "likely be determined by a [court order] and a hearing process." She added that the CorpComm has no regulatory authority to impose damages or seek restitution for families or customers.
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Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.