Electric company cannot 'cut power' w/o prior notice even if connection illegal


The core issue in the case of MERALCO v. Spouses Sulpicio (G.R. No. 195145. February 10, 2016) is whether MERALCO had the right to immediately disconnect the electric service of the respondents Sulpicio upon discovery of an outside connection attached to their electric meter.

RELEVANT FACTS: On November 5, 1999, MERALCO’s service inspector inspected the respondents’ electrical facilities and found an outside connection attached to their electric meter. The service inspector traced the connection, an illegal one, to the residence and appliances of Nieves, a neighbor and relative. Nieves was the only one present during the inspection and she was the one who signed the Metering Facilities Inspection Report. Due to the discovery of the illegal connection, the service inspector disconnected the respondents’ electric services on the same day. The inspection and disconnection were done without the knowledge of the respondents as they were not at home and their house was closed at the time.

SUPREME COURT: The distribution of electricity is a basic necessity that is imbued with public interest. Its provider is considered as a public utility subject to the strict regulation by the State in the exercise of its police power. Failure to comply with these regulations gives rise to the presumption of bad faith or abuse of right.

Nevertheless, the State also recognizes that electricity is the property of the service provider. Republic Act No. (RA) 7832 was enacted by Congress to afford electric service providers multiple remedies to protect themselves from electricity pilferage. These remedies include the immediate disconnection of the electric service of an erring customer, criminal prosecution, and the imposition of surcharges. However, the service provider must avail of any or all of these remedies within legal bounds, in strict compliance with the requirements and/or conditions set forth by law.

Section 4(a) of RA 7832 provides that the discovery of an outside connection attached on the electric meter shall constitute as prima facie evidence of illegal use of electricity by the person who benefits from the illegal use if the discovery is personally witnessed and attested to by an officer of the law or a duly authorized representative of the Energy Regulatory Board (ERB). With the presence of such prima facie evidence, the electric service provider is within its rights to immediately disconnect the electric service of the consumer after due notice.

This Court has repeatedly stressed the significance of the presence of an authorized government representative during an inspection of electric facilities.:
The presence of government agents who may authorize immediate disconnections go into the essence of due process. Indeed, we cannot allow respondent to act virtually as prosecutor and judge in imposing the penalty of disconnection due to alleged meter tampering. That would not sit well in a democratic country. After all, Meralco is a monopoly that derives its power from the government. Clothing it with unilateral authority to disconnect would be equivalent to giving it a license to tyrannize its hapless customers.
Additionally, Section 6 of RA 7832 affords a private electric utility the right and authority to immediately disconnect the electric service of a consumer who has been caught in flagrante delicto doing any of the acts covered by Section 4(a). However, the law clearly states that the disconnection may only be done after serving a written notice or warning to the consumer.To reiterate, RA 7832 has two requisites for an electric service provider to be authorized to disconnect its customer’s electric service on the basis of alleged electricity pilferage: first, an officer of the law or an authorized ERB representative must be present during the inspection of the electric facilities; and second, even if there is prima facie evidence of illegal use of electricity and the customer is caught in flagrante delicto committing the acts under Section 4(a), the customer must still be given due notice prior to the disconnection.

In view of MERALCO’s failure to comply with the strict requirements under Sections 4 and 6 of RA 7832, the Supreme Court held that MERALCO had no authority to immediately disconnect the respondents’ electric service. As a result, the immediate disconnection of the respondents’ electric service is presumed to be in bad faith.

Moreover MERALCO’s allegation that the respondents refused to pay the differential billing before the disconnection of their electric service is an obvious falsity. MERALCO never disputed the fact that the respondents’ electric service was disconnected on November 5, 1999 – the same day as when the electric meter was inspected. Also, MERALCO’s demand letter for payment of the differential billing is dated December 4, 1999. Thus, there is no truth to the statement that the respondents first failed to pay the differential billing and only then was their electric service disconnected.

SUGGESTED READINGS:

[1] Samar II Electric Cooperative, Inc. v. Quijano, G.R. No. 144474, April 27, 2007, 522 SCRA 364, 375, 376.
[2] Quisumbing v. Manila Electric Company, G.R. No. 142943, April 3, 2002, 380 SCRA 195, 208.
[3] Manila Electric Company v. Navarro-Domingo, G.R. No. 161893, June 27, 2006, 493 SCRA 363, 371.

Popular Posts