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Court rules in favor of steel company in dispute

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The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed Tuesday the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission's grant of summary judgment in favor of a steel production facility in a contract dispute involving a public utility. Before ruling on the summary judgment, the high court first had to decide which standard of review to use.

In Northern Indiana Public Service Co. v. United States Steel Corp., No. 93S02-0809-EX-489, the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. and United States Steel Corp. disagreed on the application of a price adjustment provision based on a 1999 contract. NIPSCO believed it applied to both an energy charge and demand charge; U.S. Steel believed it only applied to the energy charge. The IURC approved the original contract based on a settlement agreement and contract for electric industrial power service submitted to the agency. U.S. Steel filed a complaint seeking to enforce its interpretation of the contract in 2006 and filed for summary judgment; the commission granted the motion. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed.

NIPSCO wanted the Supreme Court to apply a de novo standard because the case involves summary judgment and a question of law. It argued the appeal isn't the product of a regulatory settlement but a contract dispute between two private parties.

The commission approved the contract, effectively making it an order of the commission, so when ruling on the summary judgment motion, that means the IURC interpreted its own order, not a contract, wrote Chief Justice Randal T. Shephard. Approving such contracts and resolving disputes is intrinsic to the commission's regulation of utility rates, he wrote.

Agencies, such as the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, aren't judicial bodies, but are executive branch institutions which the General Assembly has empowered with delegated duties. Adjudication by an agency deserves a higher level of deference than a summary judgment order by a trial court falling squarely within the judicial branch, so the high court applied the established standard for judicial review of commission orders, he wrote.

Using that standard of review, the high court ruled 4-1 the IURC didn't err in interpreting the contract. The commission determined that other documents the parties executed at the same time as the contract, but didn't submit to the commission, couldn't be used to explain, expand, or vary the contract's terms because the contract wasn't ambiguous.

NIPSCO argued adjustment applies to both the energy charge and demand charge, but the commission rejected its argument, finding the utility misapplied the adjustment based on the agreed upon contract terms and rates approved by the commission. NIPSCO's argument on appeal doesn't persuade the justices that the IURC's interpretation of the contract was unreasonable. Justice Frank Sullivan dissented without an opinion, because he would have denied transfer believing the Court of Appeals' conclusion was correct.

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  1. This sure is not what most who value good governance consider the Rule of Law to entail: "In a letter dated March 2, which Brizzi forwarded to IBJ, the commission dismissed the grievance “on grounds that there is not reasonable cause to believe that you are guilty of misconduct.”" Yet two month later reasonable cause does exist? (Or is the commission forging ahead, the need for reasonable belief be damned? -- A seeming violation of the Rules of Profession Ethics on the part of the commission) Could the rule of law theory cause one to believe that an explanation is in order? Could it be that Hoosier attorneys live under Imperial Law (which is also a t-word that rhymes with infamy) in which the Platonic guardians can do no wrong and never owe the plebeian class any explanation for their powerful actions. (Might makes it right?) Could this be a case of politics directing the commission, as celebrated IU Mauer Professor (the late) Patrick Baude warned was happening 20 years ago in his controversial (whisteblowing) ethics lecture on a quite similar topic: http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1498&context=ilj

  2. I have a case presently pending cert review before the SCOTUS that reveals just how Indiana regulates the bar. I have been denied licensure for life for holding the wrong views and questioning the grand inquisitors as to their duties as to state and federal constitutional due process. True story: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS Shorter, Amici brief serving to frame issue as misuse of govt licensure: https://www.scribd.com/doc/312841269/Thomas-More-Society-Amicus-Brown-v-Ind-Bd-of-Law-Examiners

  3. Here's an idea...how about we MORE heavily regulate the law schools to reduce the surplus of graduates, driving starting salaries up for those new grads, so that we can all pay our insane amount of student loans off in a reasonable amount of time and then be able to afford to do pro bono & low-fee work? I've got friends in other industries, radiology for example, and their schools accept a very limited number of students so there will never be a glut of new grads and everyone's pay stays high. For example, my radiologist friend's school accepted just six new students per year.

  4. I totally agree with John Smith.

  5. An idea that would harm the public good which is protected by licensing. Might as well abolish doctor and health care professions licensing too. Ridiculous. Unrealistic. Would open the floodgates of mischief and abuse. Even veteranarians are licensed. How has deregulation served the public good in banking, for example? Enough ideology already!

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