BELLOWS FALLS -- A local heating supplier will be forced to pay $10,000 to settle claims that it violated Vermont consumer protection rules and that its vice president retaliated against a consumer who complained to the Vermont Attorney General's Office about the company's propane practices.
Cota & Cota Oil was, according to the AG's Office, ordered to fork over $5,000 to the state for violations regarding the company's propane pricing, fees and terms of service, and split an additional $5,000 between the customer who filed the complaint and her landlord. Justin Colbert, assistant attorney general in the Public Protection Division of the Attorney General's Office, told the Reformer the Office's Consumer Assistance Program got a complaint last year from a customer who was dismayed over Cota & Cota's practices pertaining to its credit customers and cash deliveries. He said the complainant initially got $2,500 to reimburse her and she will now share the same amount with her landlord to make up for retaliatory actions taken against them by Cota & Cota.
The first $7,500 in penalties came from a settlement reached on Feb. 18, but the remainder of the money must be paid as a result of a separate settlement reached this month. Colbert said the company has already paid the initial sum and has until April 14 to pay the final $2,500. Cota & Cota will have to pay any fees necessary for the consumer and landlord to establish propane service with another provider.
Colbert said the Attorney General's Office found that Cota & Cota was illegally requiring all cash customers to make a $350 payment up front, and the company would refuse a delivery unless a back balance was completely cleared and the up-front $350 charge was paid.
"That's a problem because Vermont's propane rules say you can't require someone to be on credit unless they meet certain conditions and the company can charge a security deposit, but it has to be two-12ths of the customer's estimated annual bill," he explained.
According to the AG's Office, Cota & Cota also did not list the amount or duration of any of its fees in its fee disclosure form, as it is required to do. And propane suppliers cannot, except under certain circumstances, refuse to deliver propane due to outstanding balances, or require up-front payments. Colbert said Cota & Cota has agreed, as part a settlement, to change its practices to comply with state law and has updated its fee disclosure form.
But Colbert said company Vice President Chris Cota attempted to cancel all propane service at the property that serves as the residence of the woman who filed the complaint. There are state laws that protect consumers from retaliation.
"My office determined that Cota & Cota's actions, immediately after settling other consumer protection claims, were retaliatory," said Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said in a statement. "We reacted swiftly. We will not tolerate consumers being targeted for shedding light on unfair business practices."
Company owner Casey Cota told the Reformer everyone at Cota & Cota just wants to put the matter behind them.
"The judgment was made and we're moving forward," he said Wednesday.
The company is a family-owned business that has been in operation since 1941. It also has offices in Brattleboro, North Springfield, Ludlow and White River Junction.
In a separate case, a consumer complained to CAP about being billed a higher amount after ordering propane online from Bourne's Energy in Morrisville. Sorrell's office found that Bourne's charged some consumers a higher price for propane delivered after the consumer had pre-paid via an online ordering system. Bourne's agreed to charge consumers only the price clearly disclosed and paid in advance, and to refund the post-delivery charges to all consumers charged a higher amount after delivery.
Consumers who have questions about the settlements or wish to file a complaint may contact the Attorney General's Consumer Assistance Program, by phone at 802-656-3183 or 1-800-649-2424, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail (Consumer Assistance Program, 146 University Place, Burlington, VT 05405).
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.