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plaintiffs have obtained preliminary approval of class action settlement delivering more than 2 billion dollars in benefits to customers in south carolina

SC judge gives initial OK to SCANA’s $2B settlement with customers over nuclear project | Avery G. Wilks of The State WINNSBORO, SC A S.C. judge gave preliminary approval Tuesday to SCANA’s $2.1 billion settlement with its 730,000 S.C. electric customers over high power bills stemming from a failed nuclear construction project. Circuit Court Judge John Hayes’ decision brings electric customers of SCANA’s subsidiary, SCE&G, a step closer to cash payouts and rate credits after they collectively paid more than $2 billion in higher electric rates for the abandoned V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion project in Fairfield County. Still, the settlement depends on the S.C. Public Service Commission, which sets utility rates, approving Virginia-based Dominion Energy’s offer to buy SCANA and lower the typical SCE&G customer’s power bill by up to $22 a month. The ratepayer settlement with SCANA depends on that $22-a-month rate cut from Dominion. Without it, the deal would fall apart. After a weeks-long hearing last month, the PSC must make its decision by Dec. 21. The legal settlement also includes up to $180 million in cash refunds for SCE&G’s current and former customers, to be paid out in portions based upon how much each customer paid in higher rates for the project. The typical SCE&G residential customer’s electric bill rose by about $27 a month after nine rate hikes to finance the project. An unknown portion of that $180 million pot, however, will be paid to the teams of attorneys who sued SCANA on behalf of its ratepayers and have worked on the case since August 2017 — a month after the project collapsed. If the Dominion deal is approved, information about the legal settlement would be sent to SCE&G’s 730,000 electric customers, likely starting in January, according to Pete Strom, one of the attorneys leading the case for ratepayers. Customers formally could object to the deal or opt out. Final approval likely would come about April, Strom said. “For the first time in this whole debacle, the class of customers would have the right to be heard,” Ed Westbrook, one of the attorneys suing SCANA, said in the hearing Tuesday. “Here, customers are going to have the right to speak up. They’re going to have the right to comment on the settlement.” Previous Related Article from The State in Columbia SC COLUMBIA, SC SCANA Corp. has agreed to a $2 billion settlement with the S.C. customers it charged high electric rates for a failed nuclear plant construction project. And, in a new twist, the legal agreement turns over to SCE&G customers the $115 million golden parachutes that had been set aside for soon-to-be-ousted SCANA executives. It also forces the sale of a number of non-essential SCANA properties that could give SCE&G customers another $70 million or more in refunds or rate credits, according to one attorney involved. However, the settlement — announced Saturday by Cayce-based SCANA — is not a done deal. It hinges on a judge’s OK and a ruling from the S.C. Public Service Commission approving Virginia-based Dominion Energy’s proposed buyout of SCANA, SCE&G’s parent company. As part of that buyout, Dominion has proposed to slash SCE&G’s nuclear-bloated electric rates by as much as $22 a month — saving SCE&G’s 730,000 electric customers more than $2 billion. That’s how much SCE&G customers have paid in the form of higher power bills for the failed V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion project. It also matches what ratepayers were seeking from SCE&G in nuclear refunds, according to Pete Strom, an attorney representing SCE&G ratepayers. “This is basically our version of the Bernie Madoff situation,” Strom said. “We have some bad actors who did some bad stuff at SCANA. As a result of that, hundreds of millions of dollars are lost. … We’ve gotten as much money as we possibly can out of this and still make it somewhat attractive for Dominion to take it over.” The settlement seeks to resolve a legal firestorm over SCE&G customers’ bloated power bills that has raged since July 2017, when the Cayce-based utility canceled its decade-long, $9 billion effort to build two more nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County. SCE&G’s customers have paid more than $2 billion in the form of higher power bills to finance the now-abandoned project. The impact on SCE&G’s highest-in-the-region power bill was noticeable. After nine rate hikes, about one-fifth of SCE&G customers’ power bills were paying for the project. That cost the typical residential customer about $27 a month. As soon as SCE&G canceled the project, its customers wanted their $2 billion back. They filed lawsuits seeking refunds and accusing their utility of fraud and negligence. The settlement announced Saturday could put an end to that legal battle. It came with the endorsement of S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Lexington Republican who last September issued a non-binding opinion that the 2007 law that enabled the V.C. Summer nuclear project and its nine rate hikes was unconstitutional. Wilson thanked Dominion Energy “for its willingness to provide the financial resources necessary to make this restitution. It is important to note that Dominion Energy was not involved in the creation of this situation, and we appreciate its role in finding a resolution that serves the best interests of SCE&G ratepayers.” Wilson said he believes the $2 billion settlement is the largest of its kind in S.C. history but hinted that his office is continuing its investigation into the nuclear project’s failure. “This milestone ends our pursuit for restitution to ratepayers, but does not end our inquiry into the individual actors that may have contributed to the project’s failure,” Wilson said. “We want to acknowledge the hard work of the private lawyers who zealously fought for the interests of ratepayers as well through various lawsuits filed on the behalf of SCE&G ratepayers.” Strom, the former U.S. attorney for South Carolina, also said the investigation into potential criminal wrongdoing by SCANA executives likely is not over. “At the end of the day, the real justice is going to come for those who did anything criminally wrong,” Strom said. “I would be surprised if there were not indictments.” As part of the settlement, SCANA agreed to turn over to its electric customers a $115 million trust it had set aside for executives if they lose their jobs during the planned Dominion takeover. The money once earmarked for executives now could go to customers in the form of credits or refunds. That would include former SCE&G customers who helped pay for the V.C. Summer project but since have moved away, Strom said. Those executives likely would still receive golden parachutes if they lose their jobs during the Dominion merger. But Dominion now would be on the hook to pay those severance packages. Current and former SCE&G customers also would benefit from the sale of non-essential SCANA properties, including the Ramsey Grove Plantation in Georgetown, where SCANA executives duck hunted; the original SCE&G headquarters on Meeting Street in Charleston; and several properties near SCANA’s Cayce headquarters. “We wanted to take away the golden parachutes and the toys for anybody still left there,” Strom said. It was unclear Saturday how much the ratepayer attorneys would be paid as part of the settlement. The settlement included no admission of guilt or blame from SCANA. The company consistently has deflected blame for the project’s failure to lead contractor Westinghouse for declaring bankruptcy in March 2017 and state-owned minority partner Santee Cooper for unilaterally pulling out of the construction effort on July 31, 2017. “SCANA and SCE&G deny the allegations made in the lawsuit, but have agreed to resolve this matter,” the company said in a news release. SCANA’s top attorney, senior vice president Jim Stuckey, said in a statement, “We are pleased that we were able to achieve a mutually acceptable resolution of this matter so that we can keep our focus on moving forward with the merger with Dominion Energy.” Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks. Follow Travis Bland at @DTravisBland. John Monk contributed to this story.

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Supreme Court Slows Erosion of Consumer Rights

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As Reported by Consumerist Magazine

Supreme Court Allows For Rare Win In Customers’ Lawsuit Against Samsung

10.3.1711:18 AM EDTBy @themorrancave The Supreme Court has a long history of ruling against consumers when it involves a company’s attempt to strip its customers of their right to a day in court, but this week the nation’s highest court decided to not hear an appeal in a lawsuit involving Samsung, marking a rare instance in which SCOTUS came down on the consumers’ side in this issue.This case, Norcia v. Samsung, involves Samsung customers who allege the company misled them about the speed, performance, and memory capacity of the company’s Galaxy S4 phone.Samsung, like just about every other tech company, includes a “forced arbitration” clause in its terms of service. This clause effectively says two things: First, customers can’t sue Samsung, regardless of the allegation against the company. Second, they certainly can’t join together with other, similarly wronged customers in a class action against Samsung.Instead, each aggrieved customer must go through the process of individual, private arbitration; a process many American consumers don’t even know exist. Arbitration proceedings are done behind closed doors and the rulings are often confidential, taking away a very vital aspect of a lawsuit: Holding a company publicly accountable for its failings.Many arbitration clauses — particularly for software and websites — are buried deep in one of those multi-thousand-word user agreements that you must click “yes, I read and agree” to, even when you haven’t. In other instances, companies will put an arbitration statement on the product’s box, or — in the case of the Stormtrooper Snuggie — on a slip of paper inside the box.But in Norcia, Samsung put the language of the forced arbitration clause inside the warranty booklet that was included among the many other pieces of paper and plastic in the S4 box that all gets thrown away or recycled immediately. Samsung believes that putting the clause in the warranty booklet was sufficient to shunt Mr. Norcia’s lawsuit out of the legal system and into arbitration.However, Norcia fought back, pointing out that he purchased his phone at a Verizon store, where an employee unboxed the device and set it up for him. He says that when he left the store, the phone was all he took with him. The packaging — including the warranty booklet — remained behind.In Sept. 2014, a U.S. District Court judge in California agreed with Norcia, concluding that the “inconspicuous placement of the arbitration provisions in the warranty booklet, and Samsung’s failure to inform consumers in any way about the proposal to require arbitration,” meant that the tech giant could not force Norcia into arbitration.Samsung appealed this ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on the matter in Oct. 2016. It argued that, because Samsung is bound by the terms of the warranty, the customer must also be bound by the arbitration clause that Samsung inserted into the warranty information.But once again, Samsung failed to convince the court. In a unanimous ruling, the three-judge panel noted that a warranty is not a two-way contract, as it “does not impose binding obligations on the buyer.”Samsung also tried to argue that Norcia should be bound by the arbitration agreement because he did agree to one when he set up his phone with Verizon. This seemed to baffle the appeals court, which pointed out that Samsung has nothing to do with the Verizon customer agreement, and that Samsung provided no evidence to show that Verizon intended its agreement to cover both the wireless provider and the makers of the devices used on the Verizon network.Not to be stopped, Samsung petitioned the Supreme Court, asking the justices to decide whether or not this lawsuit could be compelled into arbitration. Even though the court has repeatedly (though often by only a narrow margin) come down on the side of forced arbitration, SCOTUS decided on Monday to deny the Samsung petition.The denial, made without comment, means that the Ninth Circuit ruling stands and that Samsung can not force Norcia into arbitration.No courts have yet to make any rulings on the merits of Norcia’s allegations, but at least he’ll now have the chance to make those allegations in public in a court of law, rather than in the black hole of a closed-door arbitration hearing.10.3.17By @themorrancave