A judge Monday gave conditional approval to a proposed settlement that calls for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to pay out tens of millions of dollars in refunds to customers who billed inaccurate amounts during a problem-filled overhaul of the utility's customer billing system.
Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said he supports the deal "in principal," but wants changes to be made in the agreement to make the refund claims process less complicated for DWP ratepayers, according to attorney Gillian Wade, who represents one of the plaintiffs critical of the deal.
Berle also would not commit to $13 million in attorneys' fees that, under the current proposed agreement, would be given to the lead attorney seven days after the deal's final approval, according to Wade.
The judge said he would decide after actual refund amounts — rather than estimated figures — have been calculated, the attorney said. Another hearing was set for Feb. 5 to consider preliminary approval of the deal, Wade said.
Berle had delayed granting preliminary approval in two previous hearings, after attorneys for some of the plaintiffs raised objections to the way another attorney had drawn up the terms with the DWP.
Consumer advocates also said they were concerned about the deal because its terms give DWP officials too much power in deciding how much they would refund or back-bill customers.
But utility officials say the deal, if accepted by the court, would result in $44 million total in overcharges to be credited back to customers and would give back "100 cents on the dollar to every customer affected by our billing system problems."
They added that the settlement also gives customers a "thorough and fair neutral process for resolving claims, including the opportunity to have their claims heard directly by the court."
The most recent version of the settlement, which was filed in court last month, includes all 12 revisions requested by Berle, according to DWP officials. Those changes include putting in signature lines for class plaintiff representatives, using six languages on the claims forms, setting up an online claims submission system, and giving clearer information about the kinds of claims ratepayers could make.
Consumer advocates critical of the deal said before today's hearing that despite the recent revisions, the settlement terms still would give DWP too much power to dictate the refund amount. Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court last month called the revised settlement "remarkably flawed," and the claims process it would set up "confusing."
Court also lashed back at the DWP's statements, saying that the attorney who crafted the settlement will get his $13 million in fees as soon as the settlement deal goes through, while customers may need to wait until 2017 or later to get their checks.