For more than 10 years, Eversource, the region’s largest energy company, failed to notice that it had never billed anyone for a stream of electricity flowing into one unit of a large building in the South End.
When Eversource discovered its oversight last year, rather than writing off the loss as a mistake of its own making, the $20 billion company aggressively demanded back payment from the Taiwanese immigrant who owns the unit but had never received a bill.
Eversource has repeatedly threatened to shut off the electricity unless Keh-Jiann Pan pays more than $23,000 immediately or almost $30,000 financed over 5 years, which represents monthly charges of about $200 dating back to 2006. (Pan uses electric heat and air-conditioning, in addition to lights, computers, and a refrigerator.)
But Pan refused to buckle, insisting that Eversource first give him an accurate bill and a breakdown of how the company calculated what he owed.
Based on the paperwork Pan showed me, Eversource doesn’t even have records of Pan’s past use of electricity. Its demand for back payment is apparently based on an estimate — little more than a best guess.
Pan said Eversource mostly ignored his requests for more information for more than a year while apparently thinking it could intimidate him with a series of scary-sounding notices, the latest of which, dated Oct. 20, began: “FINAL NOTICE OF TERMINATION; 72 HOURS LEFT.”
“I am nobody; they are big business,” Pan said. “So many times I called and tried to negotiate with them, but they always refuse.”
Pan is a certified public accountant. He says he’s happy to serve a mostly immigrant clientele, but it’s not making him rich. If Eversource cuts the electricity to his one-person office, it will put him out of business, at least temporarily, and leave scores of clients in the lurch.
In 2006, Pan bought the storefront office in a newly constructed building near the corner of Harrison Avenue and East Berkeley Street. It’s a colorful neighborhood shared by chic art galleries and the city’s largest homeless shelter.
There are stacks of papers piled everywhere in Pan’s cramped 700-square-foot commercial condominium. Upstairs, there are six floors of residential units.
When he first took possession of his new condo, Pan switched on the lights and never looked back. Apparently, an Eversource crew busy assigning new accounts to the owners of dozens of new units in the building somehow skipped over Pan. He said he assumed a portion of his monthly condo fee covered the cost of electricity. But he acknowledges he never asked the condo association about it or made inquiries of others in the building.
Pan knows there are no free lunches. After he got over the shock of a $30,000 bill (which continues to climb with $275 in monthly late fees), he accepted the fact he must pay a portion of it,maybe even all of it — but not one dime before Eversource proved its accuracy.
Customers who do nothing when a utility has apparently overlooked them do so at their own peril. The company, in a letter to Pan, wrote it is unaware of any law “that prevents an electric utility from billing a customer for non-metered electricity used or that absolves a customer from paying for non-metered electricity used.”
If Eversource thought it could intimidate the resourceful and resolute Pan with its gaudy notices, it might now regret it. Last week, Pan enlisted me to accompany him to court. This 58-year-old man with limited English and virtually no experience in American institutions had navigated his way into a hearing before a judge for a temporary restraining order that, if granted, would thwart a Fortune 500 company.
“I believe that USA is a country of law and justice,” Pan wrote in the e-mail that enticed me into joining him in court.
Pan walks with a limp due to polio, which struck when he was a baby. He came to the United States almost 30 years ago for a master’s degree at Clemson University. He and his wife, Mei-jung Fan, have raised three children, all US citizens; two are Syracuse University graduates and one is an undergraduate at the school now.
We met in the high-ceilinged, wood-paneled lobby of the courthouse in downtown Boston. This was not small claims court where folks without lawyers commonly represent themselves.
Pan had come on his own to the state’s highest trial court to go up against a publicly traded company with more than $7 billion in annual revenue and 8,200 employees.
Pan told me he talked with a friend, studied court procedure online, and forked over $430 in filing fees to get his day in court.
When his case was called, Pan edged tentatively toward the judge, dressed in a windbreaker and sneakers. His wife, carrying a plastic shopping bag overflowing with Eversource shutoff notices and an English-to-Chinese dictionary, crept up behind him.
Everyone in the courtroom wore a dark suit, white shirt, and tie, except me (open-collar plaid shirt, khaki pants) and the judge (black robes). Everyone seemed to know the court choreography and one another.
Michael K. Callahan, a lawyer with more than 30 years experience, represented Eversource and made short work of the hearing.
He preemptively told Judge Mark A. Hallal that Eversource had no intention of turning off the electricity. Period. One would be forgiven for thinking otherwise, based on the threatening notices.
Pan never spoke. The judge announced that he was granting Pan’s petition blocking Eversource from turning off the electricity, at least until Feb. 1. The judge then told Pan that he must work with Eversource to resolve the dispute. Fine. But I didn’t hear anyone telling Eversource the same thing. And from what I can see, it is Eversource that needs to stop making threats and start treating Pan like a human being.
I repeatedly asked an Eversource spokesman for an explanation of the company’s original oversight (anyone else out there getting “free” electricity?) and, more importantly, how it calculated the amount it now demands of Pan. I shared with Eversource what I had learned from studying the paperwork. But Eversource declined to comment, citing customer privacy.
However, Michael Durand, the Eversource spokesman, conceded in a telephone call that the company needs to start over in its dealings with Pan.
“We are going back and looking at our records to see how we calculated the amount owed,” he said. “We need to make sure what we’ve done is based on fact.”
When I looked at Eversource’s communications with Pan, the one element that really struck me was how little effort Eversource had put into explaining its calculation: a couple of columns of figures without a narrative. It’s like the company expected Pan to simply accept what was handed down to him from on high. Talk about imperious.
The other thing that struck me was how susceptible Eversource’s calculations are to challenge in light of the apparent lack of records. State regulations allow a utility to estimate a customer’s electricity use in limited circumstances, such as a customer denying access to a meter. That did not happen here.
Eversource completely dropped the ball on this one. And in the process made life miserable for Pan and Fan: constant worry, sleepless nights.
Why not forgive the debt, given all of Eversource’s missteps, and move on, I asked Durand.
“That’s one of the things we have to take a closer look at,” he said.
Sean P. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.