Many of the posts on this blog have to do with the Public Utility Commission (PUC). I assume most readers do not have a background in PUC proceedings. I certainly didn’t when I first got involved with the Dragonpipe (Mariner East pipeline system). The terms below are among the ones I have had to learn about, and I am providing a description of them here to save others from having to go through the same learning process. You can refer to this glossary when you read blog posts about the PUC.
While PUC cases are conducted in a manner similar to ordinary court cases, there are also significant differences. Just as in a court case, the PUC must ultimately render an opinion in each of these cases. Their actions can range from granting all the requests in the complaint to dismissing them all, or something in between.
Filing pro se vs. filing with representation (a lawyer). As you may have noticed, Rebecca Britton, Laura Obenski, Melissa DiBerandino, and Wilmer Baker all filed complaints “pro se”, meaning on their own behalf, without a lawyer. This is a brave thing for an individual to do, given that it requires personally defending your position, first in writing and then in person under questioning from Sunoco’s high-power legal team. So far, Sunoco has not succeeded in getting the PUC to reject any of their cases (although it has certainly tried). This speaks to the careful work that the complainants have put into preparing and defending their complaints. I also like to think that the PUC’s Administrative Law Judges are willing to give a little extra slack to accommodate members of the public who are willing to press their case in this way.
Emergency petitions and formal complaints. There are two options for requesting an action by the PUC: “emergency petitions” and “formal complaints”. An emergency petition, if the PUC accepts it, sets into motion a relatively rapid process that can result in a ruling within a few weeks. A formal complaint is more like a trial and takes months.
Filing an emergency petition and a formal complaint together is a common procedure. The wording is mostly the same. If the emergency petition is not granted, it is folded into the formal complaint. The difference between the two is that the emergency petition asks for an emergency hearing and a quick decision. That can only happen if four criteria are met: the petitioner’s right to relief is clear, the need for relief is immediate, the injury would be irreparable if relief is not granted, and the relief requested is not injurious to the public interest. Those four requirements must be met in the emergency-petition filing, but not in a formal complaint.
Intervention and intervenors. In addition to the “complainant” (the person filing the complaint) and the “respondent” (the target of the complaint—Sunoco and its parent Energy Transfer in these cases), there can be additional parties involved in the proceedings. These are “intervenors”, and they must be able to show they have an interest in the case (their “standing”—see below). An intervenor has many of the same prerogatives as the lawyers do, including the ability to call witnesses, to examine and cross-examine, to present evidence, and to file briefs. (An intervenor is not required to do any of those things, however; and intervention can be a worthwhile step simply to show the PUC that there is strong public interest in a case.) Intervenors also receive copies of all the documents in the case, including some not available to the public.
Docket number. The “docket” is a list of all pending cases before the PUC. The “docket number” is a unique number assigned to each case. For emergency petitions, the docket number starts with “P”; for formal complaints, it starts with “C”. All correspondence with the PUC related to a case should include that case’s docket number.
Standing to file. In order to file a petition or complaint, or to become an intervenor, you need to be able to show you have “standing”. Standing means the right to fully participate in the case. Pennsylvania courts have held that a person or entity has standing when “the person or entity has a direct, immediate, and substantial interest in the subject matter of a proceeding”. In particular, if you have something to lose depending on the outcome of the case, you can certainly claim standing.
Rulings by the Administrative Law Judge vs. rulings by the full PUC. Hearings are conducted by Administrative Law Judges in a process that is comparable to a standard legal proceeding. But the judge’s ruling is not final: the full PUC (which consists of five commissioners) must confirm it by voting at a subsequent public meeting. They can accept the ruling, reject it, or accept it in part.