City Reaches Agreement to Conclude Seattle City Light Class Action Lawsuit

City Attorney Pete Holmes | Seattle City Light CEO Debra Smith

Contact:
Dan Nolte, City Attorney’s Office Communications, Dan.Nolte@seattle.gov
Julie Moore, Seattle City Light Communications, Julie.Moore@seattle.gov


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 29, 2021

SEATTLE – The City of Seattle has reached a $3.5 million settlement agreement in an August 2019 lawsuit that claimed Seattle City Light improperly billed some of its customers based upon an estimated usage of electricity. A motion for preliminary approval of the class action settlement was filed with King County Superior Court Judge Kristin Richardson today, and will require the judge’s approval for the settlement to take effect.

The settlement, after certain costs and plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees, will be divided into two funds for qualifying residential City Light customers (class members) who received one or more estimated bills followed by a bill based on actual usage between Aug. 21, 2015 and June 8, 2020. City Light estimates the potential class could include around 300,000 residential accounts; the amount each customer may receive is dependent upon the number of qualifying claims made. As part of the settlement agreement, neither party admits liability and any class member may opt out of the agreement by timely mailing an opt out request.

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said, “Considering that attorneys’ fees alone could eclipse the settlement figure if this case were taken to trial and then appealed, this was the right move. I’m glad to have the majority of the settlement total made available to existing City Light customers in the form of a future bill credit, and I’m thankful to the team who helped bring this case to resolution.”

“We expect customers to pay for the electricity they use, nothing more, nothing less,” Seattle City Light CEO and General Manager Debra Smith said. “Since joining Seattle City Light in October 2018, we’ve recommitted to putting our customers first and proactively addressing areas where we’ve fallen short. Even before this lawsuit, we acknowledged that technology challenges in 2016-2018 resulted in some customers experiencing unusually high bills and delayed problem resolution. We’ve prioritized addressing those instances and improving processes to prevent future issues. I’m pleased to resolve this complaint in a way that directs dollars back to our customers.”

Settlement Details

The $3.5 million settlement, after certain costs and plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees, will be divided into two funds for qualifying residential City Light customers who received one or more estimated bills followed by a bill based on actual usage between Aug. 21, 2015 and June 8, 2020. Approximately 25% of the net settlement will be allocated to a “True Up” fund for residential customers who received at least one estimated bill followed by a bill based on actual usage. The remaining 75% of the net settlement will be allocated to an “Elevated Bill” fund for residential customers who received a bill in which the average kilowatt hours per day was 400% or more than their average daily kilowatt usage for a comparable billing period. The City is requesting that any remaining funds not claimed by past customers will be directed to SCL’s Emergency Low-Income Assistance fund, which provides immediate payment assistance to customers behind on their electricity bills.

City Light estimates the potential class could include around 300,000 residential accounts; the amount each customer receives is dependent upon the number of qualifying claims made. In all cases, customers must submit a claim to receive funds. Current customers eligible to participate in the settlement will receive funds in the form of a statement credit. Former customers who submit a claim will receive a check.

Next Steps

Once the court grants preliminary approval of the settlement agreement, potential class members will receive notice, providing an opportunity to submit a claim, object, or opt out. These notifications will likely go out before the end of the year.

The settlement administrator will process claim forms and notify City Light of customers who should receive credit on their account. The settlement administrator will mail checks to those who submit valid claims and who are not current customers of City Light.

The effective date of the settlement, and thus distribution of funds, is dependent upon final court approval.

Background

City Light began mass deployment of new advanced meters for residential and commercial customers in 2017. The new advanced meters were deployed to improve the accuracy of customer bills by reducing the use of billing estimates when a manual meter read cannot be completed. Given the scale of replacing nearly all City Light customers’ old meters to the new advanced meters, as well as that deployment occurring simultaneously with implementation of a new version of City Light’s billing system, more electricity meters were estimated than usual in some cases. Some customers experienced higher than expected “true up/catch up” bills after receiving multiple estimated bills or no bill at all.

While some customers did experience excessive bills, there is no evidence of widespread billing issues. City Light encourages customers struggling with paying their utility bills to reach out to Customer Service Center at (206) 684-3000 to set up a payment plan or access available bill assistance for income-qualified customers.

As part of the settlement agreement, City Light made additional commitments in the areas of communication, customer support, payment plans and more to improve the customer experience. These efforts build upon work the utility has prioritized over the last several years to improve the customer experience, including system changes that prevent excessive consecutive estimated bills, giving frontline customer service staff more flexibility to set up payment arrangements, and the joint utilities’ Customer Self-Service Portal. Using the portal, launched in May 2020, customers can conduct a wide variety of utility transactions and service requests, include signing up for payment plans and opening/closing utility accounts online. More customer-friendly features, including access to real-time usage data (15-minute intervals for residential customers), are scheduled to come online in 2022.

Also in 2020, City Light piloted a specialized customer service team to proactively contact residential customers and work out complex customer billing issues from start to finish, as well as other specialized services. This pilot model is the foundation for the permanent Customer Service Escalation Team that will launch in early 2022 to address the most challenging circumstances faced by City Light customers.