Home-rule city’s franchise contract and right-of-way ordinance trumps pro-forma provision in a tariff, so utility must bear costs of relocation

City of Richardson v Oncor Electric Delivery Company, LLC, 15-1008 (Tex. February 2, 2018)

This case involves a dispute between a city and a utility over who must pay relocation costs to accommodate changes to public rights-of-way.

The City of Richardson (“City”) negotiated a franchise agreement with Oncor Electric Delivery Company LLC, (“Oncor”)  requiring Oncor to bear the costs of relocating its equipment and facilities to accommodate changes to public rights-of-way. Richardson later approved the widening of thirty-two public alleys. Oncor refused to pay for the relocation. While the relocation dispute was pending, Oncor filed an unrelated case with the Public Utility Commission (PUC), seeking to alter its rates. That dispute was resolved by settlement, but the settlement included Richardson passing a tariff ordinance. The Court had to decide whether a pro-forma provision in a tariff, which sets the rates and terms for a utility’s relationship with its retail customers, trumps a prior franchise agreement, which reflects the common law rule requiring utilities to pay public right-of-way relocation costs.

By nature, a franchise agreement represents the unique conditions a city requires of a utility in exchange for the utility’s right to operate within the city. Here, the Franchise Contract incorporated a conventional right-of-way ordinance (the “ROW Ordinance”) requiring the utility, upon written notice from Richardson, to remove or relocate “at its own expense” any facilities placed in public rights-of-way. The ROW Ordinance is typical of others throughout Texas. “Tariff” is defined as “the schedule of a utility . . . containing all rates and charges stated separately by type of service, the rules and regulations of the utility, and any contracts that affect rates, charges, terms or conditions of service.” 16 Tex. Admin. Code §25.5(131). A tariff filed with the PUC governs a utility’s relationship with its customers, and it is given the force and effect of law until suspended or set aside. However, the PUC’s rules also contain a “pro-forma tariff,” the provisions of which must be incorporated exactly as written into each utility’s tariff.  The City and Oncor sued each other over payment of the relocation costs, each citing the differences between the ROW Ordinance/Franchise Contract and pro-forma tariff. The trial court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment, but the court of appeals reversed and rendered judgment for Oncor.

Under the common law, a utility’s right to use a city’s public rights-of-way is permissive and is subordinate to the public use of such rights-of-way. The Texas Supreme Court has traced this principal back at least as far as 1913.  The Utilities Code mirrors the common law, but specifically apply to “streets.”   Oncor argues that the Legislature’s use of “street” and not “alley” is significant and precludes these statutes from applying to alleys. Under statutory construction principles, every word included and excluded by the Legislature has significance. Looking to the statutory scheme, the Court found particularly relevant the Legislature’s recognition of the broad authority afforded to home-rule cities. As a home-rule city, Richardson has “exclusive original jurisdiction over the rates, operations, and services of an electric utility in areas in the municipality.” Furthermore, the Court held that in the context of home-rule cities, the recognition of a specific power does not imply that the other powers are forbidden. The  Legislature did not intended to strip municipalities of their common law right to require utilities to bear relocation costs. The language in the Tariff does not unmistakably address the relocation costs. The Tariff addresses Oncor’s relationship with end-users, which, in this case, dose not include the City.  As a result, the City retains the power to address costs through its ROW Ordinance and its Franchise Contract. The Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and reinstated the judgment of the trial court.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Green delivered the opinion of the Court. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.

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