Hamilton v. Suburban Propane: 113,000-Member Consumer Class Certified

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A class of consumers claiming that they were overcharged by the defendant gas company has been certified by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle. See Hamilton v. Suburban Propane Gas Corp., No. BC433779 (L.A. Super. Ct. Aug. 13, 2012) (order granting class certification). The class alleged that their monthly gas bills contained a line item designated as a “reg fee,” which did not in fact reflect a government-imposed fee. Rather, they contend that the “fee” was simply a device by which the defendant acquired additional, unapproved payments which were unconnected with the provision of any service.

As is common in class certification battles, the issue of whether common questions of law or fact predominate proved dispositive, with the defendant arguing that the term “reg fee” does not necessarily have a common, deceptive meaning across the entire class. This gave rise to an exchange during the class certification hearing, with Judge Berle asking the defendant’s counsel, “Tell me, as a consumer, what does ‘reg fee’ mean?” The defendant’s lawyer responded that “[‘reg’ is] a reference for ‘regulatory,’ but that doesn’t have any inherent meaning in itself.” While not explicit in either the hearing transcript or Judge Berle’s minute order, it appears that counsel’s concession that “reg” referred to “regulatory” supported the plaintiffs’ contention that “reg fee” evokes a government-imposed fee, rather than an arbitrary amount that augments the utility’s own bottom line.

The adequacy of the class representative, Rosalie Hamilton, was also contested, on the basis of the fact that she is 102 years old. Even so, Judge Berle found Ms. Hamilton suitable to represent the class.