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Miller v. NYS Public Service Commission and Jamaica Water Co.

decided: December 8, 1986.

CHARLES T. MILLER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
NYS PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION AND JAMAICA WATER COMPANY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



Appeal by defendants the New York State Public Service Commission and the Jamaica Water Company from a judgment entered in favor of plaintiff, Charles T. Miller, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Bramwell, J.) in the amount of $59.31, plus $100 in court fees in plaintiff's civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Appellants claim that the district court was without jurisdiction under the provisions of the Johnson Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1342. Reversed and complaint dismissed.

Author: Cardamone

Before: LUMBARD, CARDAMONE and PIERCE, Circuit Judges.

CARDAMONE, Circuit Judge:

The New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) and the Jamaica Water Company (Jamaica) appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Bramwell, J.) entered in favor of Charles T. Miller, pro se, in the amount of $59.31, plus $100 in costs and fees in his civil rights action filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

This case arises because Miller objects to a rate he was charged for a water hose connection that he could not lawfully use because of a drought emergency in New York City. Unable to carry the day before the Public Service Commission, which had authorized imposition of the objected-to rate, the pro se plaintiff turned to the federal district court. The district court accepted jurisdiction and ordered a refund of the hose charge plus costs and fees, reasoning that the Johnson Act of 1934, 28 U.S.C. § 1342 (1982) - which has excluded federal court from enjoining compliance with any order affecting State public utility rates for over 50 years - did not expressly prohibit an award of compensatory damages. While the district court's attempt to unsnarl this bureaucratic snafu for the benefit of the pro se plaintiff may be laudable, no lawful basis for it to act exists. Thus, we must reverse.

I

We set forth the facts briefly. Miller's federal action against the PSC, the New York State utility regulating agency, and Jamaica, a public water utility servicing parts of Queens and Nassau County, New York, arose over a dispute concerning his water bill. Miller claimed that through September 1984 he had not been billed by Jamaica for water, and filed a complaint with the PSC to determine the amount he owed for service up to that date. In October 1984 Jamaica sent Miller a bill for $720, which Miller contested as being incorrect, and which the PSC also found to be in error. An agreement was reached on the amount due, and Miller commenced paying in monthly installments. While the record before us is not clear as to the precise details, disputes later arose between Miller and Jamaica over the amount of a subsequent bill sent by Jamaica, an allegedly promised adjustment to this bill that was not made, and an arrangement Miller made with his bank for it to transfer $50 monthly from his checking account to Jamaica.

Claiming it never received payment, Jamaica terminated Miller's service without notice. When Miller complained to the PSC, he was advised that Jamaica had no record of payments for the months from February to June 1985. Dissatisfied with this response, Miller commenced an Article 78 proceeding in New York State Supreme Court. That action subsequently was dismissed, without prejudice, because Miller had failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Finally, Miller claims that Jamaica and the PSC held an "informal hearing" regarding his complaint during October 1985 without notifying him.

The instant suit was commenced in federal court in the Eastern District on January 15, 1986. In his complaint Miller sought a declaratory judgment which would: (1) order the PSC to provide him with a formal hearing, (2) find that Jamaica did not properly credit his account with money received from his bank through electronic fund transfer authorizations, and (3) hold Jamaica liable for all expenses resulting from the termination of his water service. Miller also requested a permanent injunction to prevent Jamaica from terminating his water service and $500,000 in damages.

Judge Bramwell signed a show cause order together with a temporary restraining order enjoining Jamaica from terminating Miller's water service pending determination of the show cause order. The PSC responded by placing a "withhold" on Miller's account that prevented termination of his service during the pendency of the PCS's investigation, and asked the district court to take no action until that investigation was complete. Jamaica answered the complaint on February 5, 1986 and denied generally Miller's allegations. The answer admitted that Jamaica sent Miller a $750 bill in October 1984, received a $50 payment in April 1985 from Miller's bank, attended an informal meeting with the PSC in October 1985, and notified Miller that his service would be terminated unless he paid $438.42 in overdue charges. As an affirmative defense Jamaica asserted that the PSC had sole jurisdiction over the action and that Miller's complaint should be dismissed.

II

At a hearing held February 20, 1986 the district court directed the parties to resolve Miller's bill and to report back on April 3. On March 13 the PSC wrote Judge Bramwell that the parties had agreed to a 25% reduction in the statement but that Miller requested a further reduction of his bill to reflect the elimination of a hose connection charge. The hose connection charge has been in effect for many years and Jamaica and the PSC opposed its elimination. Miller stated that because of a drought in 1985, New York City had prohibited the use of outside hoses during the summer months. While the prohibition did not affect customers with meter service who pay for the water they actually use, those customers who pay a flat rate - including Miller - continued to be charged the same amount. Miller argued that he should not be charged for a service he could not legally use. Jamaica stated that it had initiated the hose charge with PSC authorization and the PSC responded that, after considering the issue, it had decided that no reduction in the hose charge was warranted.

At the April 3rd meeting with the district court the parties presented the proposed agreement as well as their arguments regarding the hose charge. The judge ordered a refund to Miller of $59.31, representing the cost of the 1985 hose charge, and also awarded him $100 in costs and fees. The PSC filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that the judgment should be vacated and the action dismissed in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1342. The district court concluded that § 1342 did not deprive it of jurisdiction because it had not entered an injunction or ...


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