Senior Citizens Handbook - Public Utilities and LIHEAP

Senior Citizens Handbook - Public Utilities and LIHEAP

Last updated: November 2012

(Chapter 7 Section 2 of Senior Citizens Handbook)

This section explains your rights to receive utility service such as gas and electricity, as provided by public utilities and landlords. It also describes an energy program that pays you money to help with utility bills. 

The Utility's Duty To Provide Service

What is a Public Utility?

The Public Utilities Act (Act) and the regulations of the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) regulate public utilities, including the major companies.

Examples
: Commonwealth Edison, Nicor, Peoples Gas, Illinois Power and Central Illinois Light Company.

A "public utility" is any company that produces, sells or delivers heat, cold, power, electricity, water or light.

However, these laws do not apply to utilities run by municipalities or rural electric cooperatives, which are governed by local ordinances or by their own rules. This section discusses your legal rights only as to those public utilities regulated by the Act and the ICC regulations.

The Duty to Serve -- In General

A public utility must supply adequate and reasonably efficient service. They must do this impartially and at reasonable rates. They must provide service without unjust discrimination and without delay. The utility must provide service for all who request it, are willing to pay for it and abide by the company's rules.

Deposits as a Condition of Service

If you have failed to pay for past due utility service, the utility can require a deposit when you apply for service. If you are a present customer, a utility can demand a deposit if you have repeatedly paid late for service.

Examples
:

  • If you are billed monthly, you need to be late with your payment 4 times during any 12 month period before the utility can demand a deposit.
  • If you are billed every other month, you need to be late two times in a row or three total times during any 12 month period.

The company can demand a deposit if they discover that you have tampered with the equipment to your benefit.

When you apply for utility service, some utilities can insist that you pay a deposit if your “credit score” is below a certain level.

If you have been a customer for at least two years, the utility cannot make you pay a deposit due to late payments unless you have been disconnected for nonpayment and you are seeking reconnection.

Generally, the utility must refund your deposit, with interest, after one year. They do not have to refund it if you:

  • are now disconnected for nonpayment;
  • repeatedly paid late, as shown in the foregoing examples;
  • benefited from tampering; or
  • have any unpaid past due bills.

Usually, the amount of the deposit cannot be more than one-sixth of the estimated annual cost of service.

Denials Based on Unrelated Bills

A utility cannot refuse to give you service because of some matter unrelated to your service, such as non-payment of another person's utility bill or nonpayment for different kinds of services. However, a utility can deny service to an applicant until the applicant satisfies an unpaid bill from a former residence for the same type of service.

Service When a Bill is in Dispute

A utility cannot cut off service to force you to pay a bill that you dispute. If this happens, they must promptly restore service while the dispute is pending. Of course, you must pay the undisputed portion of the bill. It is illegal for the utility to threaten to discontinue service for nonpayment of a disputed bill.

If you dispute a bill or part of it, you must try in good faith to resolve the dispute. This means that you must use the dispute mechanisms available from the utility and if necessary, use the complaint procedures available through the ICC described later.

Undercharges

Sometimes, a utility mistakenly bills you less than they should and does not discover the mistake until months or years later. When this happens, you may be presented with a very large bill. Although the utility has a right to collect this undercharged amount, they cannot disconnect service due to its non-payment.

The Landlord's Duty to Provide Utility Service

Duties Imposed By Law or Lease

In general, a landlord does not have to provide utility service to tenants. Your city or town, however, might have a law that requires landlords to provide utility service or facilities. Also, your lease might require a landlord to provide and possibly pay for utility service.

You should check your municipal codes or ordinances to determine whether a landlord must provide utility service or facilities. Many of them have such requirements.

Example
: In Chicago, a landlord must provide heating facilities, hot and cold water lines, plus adequate light in halls and stairways.

If your written or oral agreement with your landlord to provide or pay for any water, gas or electric service, the landlord must pay for the services to make sure they are available to you throughout the term of the lease and must pay them in a timely manner so as not to cause any interruption in service. If you do not have a written lease, or if the written lease is silent on the subject, the landlord must provide and pay for utilities.

Master Metering Problems

In a building with more than one unit but only a single meter, it is often difficult to determine how much each tenant owes for utility service. In most situations, the landlord pays for the service, and the tenants are charged by paying rent that includes an amount for utility service. In this situation, you might not know how much the landlord is charging you for utility service in relation to what he is charging the other tenants.

The Tenant Utility Payment Disclosure Act makes it illegal for a landlord to make you pay for service that goes through a master meter unless he first gives you a written formula. The formula must show how he or she allocated the utility payments among the tenants. The total of the payments under this formula cannot be more than the amount due the utility. The landlord must give you a copy of the public utility bill if you ask for it. This law does not apply to leases in which the landlord sets a fixed rent without allocating the cost of the utilities.

When the Landlord Fails to Pay the Utility Bill 

A tenant can be in a real emergency situation, especially during the winter, when the public utility shuts off service because the landlord did not pay the bill. The Rental Property Utility Service Act makes it illegal for a landlord to interrupt or terminate utility service. This means the landlord cannot request the utility to shut off service or allow shut-off by failing to pay the bill. It is also unlawful for a landlord to cut off your service by tampering with equipment or lines.

If the landlord unlawfully causes or requests the utility to stop your utility service (such as by non-payment or tampering), the landlord owes you damages in the amount of a full 100% abatement of the rent for each month that service was stopped and for any other damages you suffer due to the fact that service was off. If the landlord’s actions show a willful disregard of your rights, a court might also award you special damages up to $300 per month or the sum of $5,000 per month divided by the number of affected tenants, whichever is less.

If your building has 3 or more units and the landlord fails to pay his utility bill, the utility cannot terminate service to the tenants unless it first notifies the tenants of the proposed shut-off. The utility must give the notice to the tenants at least 10 days before the shut-off. The notice must contain:

  • The date of termination;
  • A statement of the tenants’ rights to pay the amount due and owing by the landlord and the tenants’ right to deduct whatever is paid from the rent;
  • A statement of the tenants’ right to petition the court for the appointment of a receiver (details on this later);
  • The amount of the bills due and the average monthly bill; and
  • The name of the local, free legal services agency.

If the landlord of a building that has 3 or more units has failed to pay for utility service that the landlord was required to pay, the tenants can petition the court for appointment of a receiver. The job of the receiver is to collect the rents in the building and make sure the utilities are paid. As soon as the petition is filed in court, the utility must restore service. When you are able to stop the termination of your utility service as a result of a receivership, the receiver must pay you (out of the rents collected) your court costs, attorneys’ fees, and other expenses involved in the lawsuit. A receivership is a legal proceeding and is best handled by an attorney.

When the landlord fails to pay the bill, you or the other tenants may pay for the service. If you do, the utility must credit the landlord’s account. In addition, you can legally deduct any such payments from your rent. It would be illegal for the landlord to raise the rent in order to collect all or part of the amounts that you deducted. If the tenants’ payments are enough to pay the past due amount, the utility cannot disconnect or must immediately restore service if it was disconnected.

When the landlord has failed to pay the bill, any tenant can request that the bill be put in the tenant’s name. If the tenant establishes satisfactory credit, or pays a security deposit, and agrees to pay future bills, then the utility company cannot disconnect and must restore service to any tenant disconnected.

When the landlord fails to pay for utility service in violation of the written or oral lease agreement, you may terminate the lease and move out, without being libale for rent for the remainder of the lease term. The landlord must still meet any obligations under the lease arising prior to its termination.

If Your Bill Includes Service to Common Areas or to Other Units

Generally, it is illegal for a landlord to make you pay the utility bill when the bill includes service to common areas of the building shared with other tenants or includes service to other tenants’ units. However, this is legal only if he does all of the following things before offering you a lease or accepting a security deposit:

  • Gives you a written statement about all the areas of the building that are served by your meter;
  • Gives you copies of the utility bills for your unit for the past 12 months (unless you waive this right in writing);
  • Never suggests or requires that you collect money for utilities from other tenants; and
  • Puts in writing the amount of any proposed rent reduction offered to compensate you for having to pay for service outside of your unit.

Unless you and the landlord agree in writing, the landlord cannot make you pay for utilities if the landlord had previously agreed to pay for them.

You can sue the landlord if he or she makes you pay for utilities to other apartment units or to common areas of the building without making the required disclosures to you. Likewise, you can sue the landlord if he or she improperly changes the lease from landlord paid utilities to tenant paid utilities during the term of the lease. In these situations, you can sue the landlord to recover your actual monetary damages. If the court finds that the landlord acted intentionally, the court may award triple damages. In some cases, the court also can award you your court costs and attorneys’ fees. 

Utility Lockouts

Landlords often take self-help actions when tenants are behind in rent payments. One way they do that is by terminating utility service. Some landlords physically disconnect the service. Others direct the utility to terminate the utility service when it is in their name. Either way, when a landlord cuts off service that he or she is obligated to provide, this is considered an illegal lockout.

In this situation, you can sue the landlord for any damages you suffer including personal injuries. If the landlord cuts off service that he or she must provide to you, then you can sue for an injunction, which is a court order to stop the landlord from continuing to withhold utility service from you.

Utility Shut-offs and Reconnections

When A Shut-off is Permitted

A utility can shut off service when you fail to do any of the following:

  • Pay a deposit by the due date;
  • Pay a past due bill that you owe;
  • Make an installment on a deferred payment agreement;
  • Comply with rules against tampering with the lines or the equipment, or rules against creating a hazardous condition;
  • Allow a utility representative to have access to the meter.

A utility can shut you off only after it gives you a written notice, separately from any bill. The notice must in a certain form and must be on red paper. If the notice is mailed, the shutoff cannot occur for at least 8 days from the date of the notice. If delivered another way, the utility must allow at least 5 days.

When a Shut-Off is Not Allowed

There are certain situations where it is illegal for a utility to shut off your service. In these situations, if they shut off service, they must restore it. These situations include:

  • Where you enter into a deferred payment arrangement (DPA) with the utility.

A "deferred payment arrangement" (DPA) is an agreement with the utility in which you make a down payment of at most one-fourth of the amount you owe, and pay the rest over a period of up to 12 months.

ADVOCACY TIP
You can negotiate the actual number of months for a DPA with the utility. You have the absolute right to a DPA before shutoff, unless you have defaulted on such a plan within the past 12 months. If you did default within that period, or if you are an applicant, you do not have the right to a DPA, but the utility has the discretion to give you one.

Note: you have more favorable rights during the winter months. See Winter Shut-off Rules, explained later.

  • After 2:00 p.m. on any weekday, or at any time on a holiday or weekend, unless the utility can reconnect the same day.
  • Where you dispute a bill, as long as the dispute is still pending and you pay the undisputed portion.
  • A utility cannot shut off gas or electricity needed to operate the heat if the National Weather Service predicts that the temperature will fall to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or below, during the following 24 hours. A shut-off is also prohibited on any day before a holiday or weekend when the temperature is forecasted to be 32 degrees or below. 5.
  • When you have given the utility a valid illness certificate from your doctor or board of health. The rules specify what must be stated in the certificate. An illness certificate prohibits shut-off only for 30 days, although the certification can be renewed for another 30 days. You will still have to enter into a DPA to retire the unpaid balance. Also, you must pay all current bills as they come due. If there has already been a shut-off, the utility must restore service if it gets the certificate within 14 days of the shut-off.

Winter Shut-Off Rules

A utility cannot shut you off when the temperature is below 32 degrees. Also, the ICC has a special set of rules governing gas and electric utility shutoffs that occur during the winter.

"Winter" is defined as December 1 through and including March 31 of the next year.

During the winter, the following rules apply when the utility seeks to shut off your service:

  • The utility must first send you a shut off notice at least six business days before termination. This notice must:
        - Offer you a more liberal deferred payment arrangement. They can require no more than 10% of the balance due as a down payment, and must give you at least 4 months to pay the balance.
        - Offer you a levelized payment plan for future bills. Under this plan, the utility calculates a monthly average amount to cover the estimated annual cost of service.
        - Notify you of government and private agencies that may provide assistance in paying utility bills.
  • The utility cannot make you pay more than 20% down on any deposit it requires and must allow you an additional 4 months to pay the rest of the deposit.
  • The utility cannot refuse to offer you a deferred payment arrangement because you defaulted on another DPA within the past 12 months. However, the utility does not have to offer you a DPA more than once during the winter period.
  • If you will be receiving an energy assistance grant and you ask the utility, your grant amount will be deducted from the balance due under the DPA. This has the effect of reducing the amount of your monthly payments.

Reconnection Rules After a Shut-Off

If your gas or electric utilities have been shut off, the utility must reconnect you during the heating season if you meet certain requirements.

The heating season is 1 or 2 months longer than the winter months, defined above.

The "heating season" is defined as follows:

  • For former customers who have an application pending for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): The period between October 1 and the following April 1.
  • For all other former customers: The period between November 1 and the following April 1.

To qualify for reconnection during the heating season, you:

  • Must have been disconnected for nonpayment of a bill or a deposit sometime between December 1 of the prior winter's heating season and April 1 of the current heating season;
  • Must not have used the reconnection rules the previous year;
  • Must have paid one-third of the bill incurred since the previous December 1;
  • Must not have tampered with the utility's equipment or enjoyed the benefits of such tampering; and
  • Must enter into a DPA with the utility. In this DPA, you have to pay immediately one-third of the amount past due, one-third of the required deposit; and one-third of any reconnection charge. You also must agree to a payment schedule for the remaining balances.

ADVOCACY TIP
The one-third down payment amounts can be changed to 20% if you can show a financial hardship. In such cases, the utility must give you at least 4 months to pay off the past-due balance and 3 months to pay the remainder of the deposit.

As soon as you meet these requirements, the utility must reconnect you. They can shut you off again if you default on the terms of the payment schedule.

If you cannot get reconnected under the heating season reconnection rules discussed above, it is a lot harder to get reconnected. In that situation, the utility can demand full payment of all past-due amounts, plus a deposit.

Of course, if the utility did not correctly follow the shut-off rules, the termination of utility service would be illegal. Also, you can have your utility debts discharged if you file for bankruptcy. Also, while the bankruptcy case is pending, the utility cannot withhold service based on the past due debt, as long as you listed the debt on the schedule. Whenever bankruptcy is being considered, you need to weigh the advantages and disadvantages before filing for bankruptcy.

Illinois Commerce Commission Dispute Procedures

Informal Complaints to the ICC

If you have a question or a problem with a utility bill, first contact the utility by phone, by letter, or in person. If you cannot solve the problem with the customer service representative, ask to have a supervisor hear the complaint.

If you cannot work out a solution, you should contact the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC). They will start an informal investigation in an effort to settle the dispute. They can be reached as follows:

 Chicago:
 ICC Consumer Services Division
 160 N. LaSalle St., Suite C-800
 Chicago, Illinois 60601

 Springfield:
 ICC Consumer Services Div.
 527 E. Capitol Ave.
 Springfield, IL 62794

Their phone number statewide is:
 800-524-0795 (toll free)
 800-858-9277 (TDD)

You can file complaints electronically at the Illinois Commerce Commission

These informal complaints may take two to four weeks to resolve. After taking the information from you, a counselor will contact the utility for further information and learn the position of the utility on the complaint. The counselor will try to solve the complaint in a way that is satisfactory to both sides. If either side disagrees with a proposed resolution, the counselor has no power to decide the outcome.

While complaints are being investigated, you must continue to pay current bills, and the undisputed portion of a past-due bill or enter into a DPA for its payment.

Formal Complaints to the ICC

If the problem cannot be resolved through the informal complaint process, you can file a formal complaint with the ICC. There are detailed rules of procedure for filing and conducting such a complaint. There are forms available from the:

Chief Clerk, ICC
527 East Capitol Ave.
Springfield IL  62794. 

You can also file a complaint online at the ICC website. After the complaint has been filed, there will be a hearing. You can have a lawyer, but it is not required. If you disagree with the final ICC decision, you must ask for a rehearing, by filing an application within 30 days of the date of the final order.

Appeals to the Appellate Court

If the ICC denies a rehearing, then you can appeal directly to an Illinois appellate court. You must file such a suit within 35 days from the date of the order denying a rehearing.

Lawsuits for Money Damages Against Public Utilities

The Act lets you sue in court for your actual monetary damages against public utilities for any loss or injury you suffer because the utility violated the Act or the ICC regulations. If the court finds that the action by the utility was willful, the court can award you punitive damages, an amount that the court determines is appropriate to punish the utility for what they did. If you win your case, the court must award you your reasonable attorney’s fees. You cannot win your case, however, if the utility’s interruption of service to you was accidental.

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

What is LIHEAP?

LIHEAP is a federally funded program that helps eligible low-income households pay for winter energy costs. The program is administered by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (ILDCEO) and also by a network of community organizations known as Community Action Agencies (“Agency”). You apply for the benefits at your local Agency, by appointment only.

Check the list of Agencies to find the one that serves your county. If you are home-bound, the Agency may do a home visit or allow a mail-in application. The Agency will send you a notice within 30 days of your application stating whether you are eligible and the amount of your assistance.

LIHEAP is not an entitlement program. The funds available are limited, and it is first come-first served. In any fiscal year, when the money runs out, so do the benefits. In Illinois, LIHEAP starts on November 1 of each year. There is a 2 month priority period for seniors and people with disabilities, who can take advantage of the program starting on September 1. Households with children under 5 can apply starting on October 1. General applications begin on November 1.

Who is eligible for LIHEAP?

Eligibility guidelines and standards can vary each year. Recently, eligibility has been based on 150% of the federal poverty level. Your household’s combined income for 30 days prior to application must be below certain specified dollar amounts. Under the energy assistance component, you are eligible only if the household has heat energy costs. That means you either get a heating bill or the rent takes energy costs into account.

If your heat and/or electric utility service is included in your rent:

You can qualify for LIHEAP but only if your rent is greater than 30% of your household's income for the past month. This means that residents of public housing generally cannot qualify for LIHEAP assistance.

If your heat and/or electric is not included in your rent:

You must document that you are responsible for home energy costs. You can usually do this by presenting the utility bill in your name to the Agency.

What are the components of LIHEAP?

Some of the highlights of the recent program include:

  • Percentage of Income Payment Plan. PIPP is available to customers of Ameren Illinois, ComEd, Nicor Gas and Peoples Gas/North Shore Gas. Under PIPP, you pay a percentage of your monthly income and you receive a monthly benefit towards your utility bill.  For every one-time payment you make, your unpaid, overdue bills are lowered as well.
  • The Heating Assistance Component. This component provides a one-time payment as well as energy counseling. The amount of the payment varies depending on household size, type of fuel, income and geographic location. If you are a utility customer, the payment goes directly to the utilities and is split between the utility providing the primary source of heat (which gets about 67% of the benefit) and the heat related secondary energy source (which gets about 33% of the benefit). If you pay rent but not the utilities, the Agency pays the one-time cash payment directly to you (but only if your rental expenses are greater than 30% of your income).
  • The Emergency Services Component. The Agency can pay you emergency money after a disconnection from a heat related energy source or a cooling source, if a medical condition requires cooling. If you have a life-threatening medical condition, you can get these funds to prevent a disconnection. The amount of emergency money you can get is the minimal amount necessary to reconnect up to a certain maximum amount. Your household can qualify for Emergency Assistance only if the household has made a good faith effort to pay its home energy bills. If your payment history does not demonstrate good faith, you will be required to pay an additional $75 to the utility or utilities that would receive LIHEAP payments. You must pay this amount by cash or money order, within 30 days of date of your application for Emergency Assistance.

A “good faith effort” is defined as payment to the household’s energy vendors of 10% of the household’s income for the past 90 days or 20% of the total amount owed for both primary and secondary utilities, whichever method is more beneficial to the household, but in no case less than $75.

The good faith rule may be waived in cases of “extreme economic hardship.” Such hardship exists when your household’s source of income has been permanently terminated for at least 30 days and a new source of income has not yet begun. During emergency periods declared by HFS due to extreme weather conditions, emergency money must be provided within 48 hours from the time you apply for it and within 18 hours if the energy crisis is life-threatening.

Emergency services assistance is also available in cases of weather-related natural disasters or extreme weather conditions.

  • The Emergency Furnace Repair Component. If you qualify for the Emergency Services Component, you can get a special benefit if your furnace or heating system is not operating or if it is unsafe. A simple repair may be all that is needed. A replacement heating system may be necessary if the existing system is unsafe or the repairs are greater than 75% of the cost of a replacement unit.
  • The Weatherization Component. This component provides energy-related home repair work. It is designed to lower the amount of energy used by low income households. The work may involve insulating walls and attics, sealing doors and windows or replacing broken glass. The LAA will give this assistance if the household is income eligible for LIHEAP, contains a member who receives SSI, or has a total income at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

LIHEAP Appeals

If your application for LIHEAP assistance is denied or not acted on promptly, you can appeal. The appeal process includes the following levels:

  • The Informal Conference. The Agency designates a hearing officer to conduct the informal conference, which is designed to make sure that you understand the actions taken or any reason for delay. At the end of the conference, the hearing officer must give you a written decision.
  • The State Review. If you are not satisfied with that decision, you can request a state review within 30 days from the decision resulting from the informal conference. A staff person from HFS will review your file and must send you a decision in writing within 15 days of your request for review.
  • The Formal Hearing. If you are not satisfied with the state review, you have 30 days to submit a letter to HFS requesting a formal hearing, which is conducted by a state hearing officer. The hearing must take place within 30 days of the date of your letter, and a written decision must be made within 10 days of the hearing. If you are not satisfied with the hearing decision, you have 35 days to bring a lawsuit to have that decision reviewed by a judge.

Where To Go For More Information

Statutes and Regulations

Agencies and Organizations

Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC)
 800-524-0795 (toll free)
 800-858-9277 (TDD)
 The ICC's Website
 
Chicago:

 ICC Consumer Services Division
 160 N. LaSalle St., Suite C-800
 Chicago, Illinois 60601
  
Springfield:
 ICC Consumer Services Div.
 527 E. Capitol Ave.
 Springfield, IL 62794

Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (ILDCEO)
For more information about LIHEAP call (877) 411-9276 (toll free);
800-785-6055 (TDD); or visit the LIHEAP  Website.

Helpful Organizations
The following organizations may be able to help you with

For a list of organizations in your area that may be able to help you, enter your zip code.

       

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