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Sheila Thomas, Individually and On Behalf of Others Similarly Situated v. Peoples Gas Light and Coke Company

September 30, 2011

SHEILA THOMAS, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
PEOPLES GAS LIGHT AND COKE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



APPEAL FROM THE All CIRCUIT COURT OF COOK COUNTY No. 09 CH 27734 HONORABLE RITA M. NOVAK, JUDGE PRESIDING.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Steele

PRESIDING JUSTICE STEELE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Neville and Salone concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 Plaintiff, Sheila Thomas, appeals an order of the circuit court of Cook County dismissing her putative class action lawsuit against defendant, Peoples Gas Light & Coke Company (Peoples Gas), on the ground that the Illinois Commerce Commission (Commission) had exclusive jurisdiction over Thomas's claims that Peoples Gas was attempting to force payment of debts Thomas discharged in bankruptcy. For the following reasons, we reverse the decision of the circuit court and remand the case for further proceedings.

¶ 2 BACKGROUND

¶ 3 On August 10, 2009, Thomas filed a class action complaint containing the following allegations. Thomas is 60 years old and collects disability benefits. In May 2000, Thomas filed for bankruptcy; a debt she owed to Peoples Gas was discharged in the proceeding. Peoples Gas continued to attempt to collect the debt, turned off Thomas's gas, and refused to reactivate her account for several winters.

¶ 4 Thomas alleged that in 2004, Thomas again tried to reactivate her account. Peoples Gas informed Thomas she would have to pay $5,158.20, due to her past account, to reactivate service. Thomas notified Peoples Gas of the bankruptcy and sent a notice of the discharge of the debt by facsimile to Peoples Gas. However, Peoples Gas did not reactivate her account in the winter of 2004. Between the winter of 2004 and 2006, Thomas repeatedly tried to have Peoples Gas restore her service, to no avail. In February 2006, Peoples Gas demanded $8,984.92 to reinstate her account.

¶ 5 Thomas alleged that in the summer of 2006, she filed a complaint about the matter with the office of the Illinois Attorney General. Peoples Gas subsequently activated Thomas's account, providing her with heat, hot water and cooking gas. In June 2008, Peoples Gas again deactivated Thomas's gas service. Peoples Gas demanded $8,519.61 to reinstate the account and referred her account to a debt collector.

¶ 6 Moreover, Thomas alleged, on information and belief, that the accounting system adopted by Peoples Gas in 2006 prevents employees from distinguishing amounts legitimately owed from debts discharged in bankruptcy proceedings.

¶ 7 Count I of Thomas's complaint, purportedly brought on behalf of a class of persons who have been the subject of debt collection activity by Peoples Gas since 2006 regarding amounts discharged in bankruptcy, alleged Peoples Gas violated the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act (Consumer Fraud Act) (815 ILCS 505/2 et seq. (West 2004)) and violated public policy by attempting to collect debts discharged in bankruptcy. Count II of the complaint alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress.

¶ 8 On October 8, 2009, Peoples Gas filed a motion to dismiss Thomas's complaint pursuant to section 2-619 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2008)). Peoples Gas argued the Commission had exclusive jurisdiction over Thomas's claims. Peoples Gas also argued Thomas released any claims based on events prior to December 22, 2006, when Thomas executed a release settling any claims she had against Peoples Gas for $1,600.

¶ 9 On December 30, 2009, Thomas responded to the motion to dismiss. Thomas argued that the circuit court had general jurisdiction over her claims. Thomas acknowledged her release of claims against Peoples Gas, but argued the release did not apply to any claims arising after December 22, 2006.

ΒΆ 10 On April 16, 2010, following briefing and a hearing on the matter, the circuit court granted the motion for dismiss, concluding the Commission had exclusive jurisdiction over Thomas's claims. On May 17, 2010, Thomas filed a motion to reconsider. Thomas, in addition to rearguing points raised in her opposition to the motion to dismiss, informed the circuit court she had filed an informal complaint with the Commission, which was denied. On August 25, 2010, following briefing and a hearing on the ...


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