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WILLIAM B. JACKSON v. PENNSYLVANIA PUBLIC UTILITY COMMISSION (03/20/87)

COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: March 20, 1987.

WILLIAM B. JACKSON, PETITIONER
v.
PENNSYLVANIA PUBLIC UTILITY COMMISSION, RESPONDENT

Appeal from the Order of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, in case of Petition of The Peoples Natural Gas Company for waiver of medical certification of William B. Jackson, No. P-840533.

COUNSEL

Evalynn B. Welling, with her, Daniel L. Haller, for petitioner.

Terrence J. Buda, Assistant Counsel, with him, Louise A. Knight, Deputy Chief Counsel, and Charles F. Hoffman, Chief Counsel, for respondent.

Judges Craig and Doyle, and Senior Judge Blatt, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge Blatt.

Author: Blatt

[ 105 Pa. Commw. Page 38]

William Jackson (petitioner) petitions for review of an order of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission

[ 105 Pa. Commw. Page 39]

(PUC) which precluded him from filing medical certifications in substantially the same form as one filed by him on September 28, 1984.*fn1

The petitioner, who suffers from severe chronic obstructive lung disease and arteriosclerotic heart disease, complicated by recurrent bouts of pneumonia, purchases natural gas from Peoples Natural Gas Company (Peoples) to heat his home. Since 1979, the petitioner's treating physician has provided People's with a series of medical certifications concerning these illnesses in order to prevent termination of the petitioner's gas service pursuant to the PUC's medical emergency provisions.*fn2 The treating physician has continuously indicated that such termination would prove to be fatal to the petitioner. In August 1984, however, Peoples petitioned the PUC for waiver of the petitioner's July 1984 medical certification. A hearing was subsequently held, after which the administrative law judge (ALJ) established a payment schedule and ordered that the petitioner could submit future medical certifications for new or different ailments but could not use a form substantially the same as one dated September 28, 1984,*fn3 which was admitted

[ 105 Pa. Commw. Page 40]

    into evidence at the hearing. This order was based on the ALJ's conclusion that the medical certification procedures of the medical emergency provisions do not apply where the affliction is chronic and where there is no favorable prognosis. The petitioner filed exceptions to the disallowance of similar medical certifications in the future, and the ALJ denied these exceptions. On appeal, the PUC recalculated the appropriate method of payment but affirmed the order of the ALJ which prohibited medical certifications similar to the one filed on September 28, 1984.

We initially note our scope of review of a PUC order, which is limited to determining whether or not there was a violation of constitutional rights, an error of law, or a lack of substantial evidence to support the findings. Mobilfone of Northeastern Pennsylvania, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, 73 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 340, 458 A.2d 1030 (1983).

The petitioner contends that the PUC committed an error of law in interpreting the medical emergency provisions to prohibit the use of the medical certification procedures where the illness is chronic. The PUC, however, contends that its interpretation of its own regulations which prohibit the petitioner from filing future medical certifications similar to the one filed on September 28, 1984 based on the same chronic illness is controlling.*fn4

[ 105 Pa. Commw. Page 41]

It is true, of course, that an administrative agency's interpretation of its own regulations is entitled to controlling weight, but we may disregard the agency interpretation if it is shown to be plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation. Mill v. Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, 67 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 597, 447 A.2d 1100 (1982). We must determine, therefore, whether or not the regulations here can be interpreted as limiting the medical certification procedures to non-chronic illnesses, and, if so, whether or not those regulations are consistent with the statute under which they were promulgated. Department of Public Welfare v. Forbes Health System, 492 Pa. 77, 422 A.2d 480 (1980).

The PUC contends that Section 56.111 when read in conjunction with the other emergency provisions, in particular, Section 56.118, clearly indicate that the medical certifications apply only to short term illnesses. We disagree.

Our review of the relevant regulations*fn5 indicates that medical certifications, valid for thirty days, may be

[ 105 Pa. Commw. Page 42]

    used to prevent a utility's termination of service where a medical condition will be aggravated by such termination. Furthermore, certifications may be renewed where the ratepayer has met his duty to equitably arrange to

[ 105 Pa. Commw. Page 43]

    make payment on all bills and the petitioner, here, does not contest the payment schedule. Likewise, a utility may petition the PUC to contest the validity of a certification under Section 56.118.

These regulations, while consistent with the statute under which they were promulgated,*fn6 mention neither

[ 105 Pa. Commw. Page 44]

    the duration nor the nature of an illness as factors to be considered for medical certification purposes. Inasmuch as we can find no requirement, either explicitly stated or implied in the regulations, that the medical certification procedures apply only to acute, short-term illnesses, we will reverse the order of the PUC insofar as it prohibited the petitioner from filing certifications similar to the one filed on September 28, 1984.

Order

And Now, this 20th day of March, 1987, Paragraph Seven of the order of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission in the above-captioned matter is reversed insofar as it prohibited the petitioner from filing future medical certifications alleging chronic obstructive lung disease and arteriosclerotic heart disease.

Disposition

Order pertaining to use of certification form reversed.


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