All Emma Gunter wanted, she says, was electric service to her Rockville Centre home and a LIPA account in her own name.
After being arrested and jailed, temporarily losing custody of her children and suffering damage to her former home — most stemming, she alleges, from her attempts to keep the power on with her own Long Island Power Authority account — Gunter will get her day in federal court Monday, seeking more than $700,000 in reparations for her three-year dispute with the utility and social services a decade ago.
The crux of the case is Gunter’s claim that LIPA, then operated by KeySpan and National Grid, unlawfully declined to establish an account in her name because the house she was taking over in a divorce had $7,000 in arrears under her husband’s name. A filing on Thursday lists 27 separate instances in which she charges the authority violated its own rules.
“They simply extorted me to pay my ex-husband’s bill,” charged Gunter, 54, a mother of five who spent 20 years in the airline industry.
LIPA, in court papers, claims Gunter failed at first to provide the needed document to establish an account, and that it ultimately did so in her name once she did. Representatives for LIPA and National Grid declined to comment.
Gunter’s eight-year effort to bring the case to trial is an unlikely tale. She is acting as her own attorney while LIPA for a decade has used the law firm Cullen and Dykman to argue its case. Judges have rejected LIPA’s efforts to dismiss the suit.
“I think it’s quite rare that people find a way to federal court and get through the process,” particularly without a lawyer, said Gerald Norlander, past executive director of the Public Utility Law Project, which defends ratepayers in efforts to restore utilities. Less unusual, he said, is that utilities seek to recover arrears associated with a home, when service turns over to a new account holder.
Gunter said she was living in Minneapolis and working for Northwest Airlines in 2006 when her high-school age son called saying his father, whom Gunter was divorcing, was “unresponsive.” She returned to Long Island to live with her children and began proceedings to buy the Rockville Centre house after her husband moved out.
What he left, she said, was a $7,000 LIPA bill in his name tied to the house. It wasn’t long before LIPA came to collect.
Power “was on for one day, the next day it was off,” she said. “I called and said, ‘I need to transfer the account to my name.’ I took them a deposit. They said, ‘You can’t have an account, your husband has an account, you need to pay his arrears.’ ”
LIPA in court papers says it “never required her to pay” her ex-husband’s bill. Nevertheless, LIPA said, “since she admitted that she owned” the home since mid-2006, electric service to the home “would have benefited her, and she should have been responsible for the service from the date she took ownership.”
Norlander disagreed. “They cannot deny service to any person unless that person owes money for an account in his or her name for prior service,” he said, citing state law and a precedent-setting case he won for PULP.
LIPA in court papers also claims Gunter “never supplied LIPA with a copy of the deed at that time” and that its “business records do not show [Gunter] ever applied for service” from 2006 through the first eight months of 2008. She denies the claims. Gunter said she made three separate tariff-permitted verbal applications, and never received written notice of rejection, as is required.
LIPA’s tariff doesn’t specify a deed as the only proof required for service. The tariff requires only “reasonable proof” that the applicant became responsible for service to a home, proof that “may” include a deed, “bill of sale, etc.” Gunter said she brought closing papers but didn’t have the deed until the end of 2006. When she supplied it, she charged, LIPA still demanded she pay her ex-husband’s bill.
LIPA in court papers acknowledged shutting off power to the house at least three times. Gunter said she paid more than $4,500 of her husband’s arrears. But the spotty electrical service eventually caught the attention of Nassau County Social Services.
According to media accounts from October 2008, a social worker sent to Gunter’s home “as part of an ongoing court case” found the house had “no heat or running water, and electricity was being provided by a generator in the backyard.” Gunter said the house had water, but the heat was electric.
Federal court papers filed against Gunter by Nassau Social Services point to a state action that “clearly accused Emma Gunter of failing to have a utility account and thus endangering the welfare of children who resided in the home.”
Gunter was arrested on charges of child endangerment, obstructing government administration, and criminal contempt after refusing to disclose the whereabouts of two of her children and grandchildren.
The following year, she spent four months in Nassau County jail on the contempt charges, she said. LIPA said it established electricity to the home in her name in November 2008, after she supplied a copy of her deed.
Gunter, who is of African-American and Cherokee Indian descent, said service in her name came more than two years too late. In court papers she charges she was the subject of discrimination based on race and gender. She also believes she is not alone.
“If you come from a house with arrears, you don’t get the same treatment as a house without arrears,” she said. “A house doesn’t have arrears, a person has arrears. They can’t extort people for money under the threat of excluding them from service.”