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Two Vermont Propane Companies Settle Consumer Protection Claims

CONTACT: Justin Kolber, Assistant Attorney General, (802) 828-5507

April 9, 2014

Cota & Cota, Inc., of Bellows Falls VT, and Bourne’s of Morrisville, Inc., two Vermont suppliers of retail propane, settled claims that they violated Vermont consumer protection laws with regard to propane pricing, fees, and terms of service. Cota & Cota also settled a claim that the company retaliated against a consumer who complained to the Attorney General’s Office about the company’s propane practices.

“Since 1986, Vermont has regulated the business practices of propane suppliers to protect consumers and promote fair competition,” said Attorney General Sorrell. “Our propane laws require clear disclosure and fair implementation of pricing, fees, and terms of service. My office takes seriously any consumer complaint regarding an unfair practice by propane suppliers.”

Vermont law requires propane suppliers to list all applicable fees in an initial fee disclosure form. Additionally, propane suppliers cannot refuse to deliver propane based on outstanding balances, or require up-front payments, except under certain circumstances.

After a consumer complained to the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (“CAP”), the Attorney General found that Cota & Cota was illegally requiring all cash customers to make a $350 up-front payment, and the company would refuse a delivery unless a back balance was completely cleared and the up-front $350 charge was paid. Cota & Cota also did not list the amount or duration of any of its fees in its fee disclosure form. The company agreed to a settlement changing those practices to comply with Vermont law.

Immediately after that settlement, however, a vice president of Cota & Cota took steps to cancel all propane service at the property where the consumer who complained resided. “My office determined that Cota & Cota’s actions, immediately after settling other consumer protection claims, were retaliatory,” said Attorney General Sorrell. “We reacted swiftly. We will not tolerate consumers being targeted for shedding light on unfair business practices.” Vermont has an explicit law prohibiting retaliation against consumers who have complained to the Attorney General’s Office or otherwise assisted in an investigation of unfair business practices. 9 V.S.A. § 2453b. In a second settlement, Cota & Cota will pay $5,000 in civil penalties and costs to Vermont, and $2,500 to two affected consumers, as well as any fees necessary for them to establish propane service with another provider.

In another case, a consumer complained to CAP about being billed a higher amount after ordering propane online from Bourne’s Energy. The Attorney General found that Bourne’s charged some consumers a higher price for propane delivered after the consumer had pre-paid via the online ordering system. Bourne’s agreed to a settlement to: (i) charge consumers only the price that is clearly disclosed and paid in advance; and (ii) refund all consumers who were charged a higher amount after delivery the post-delivery charges.

Consumers who have questions about the settlements or wish to file a complaint may contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program, by phone: (802) 656-3183 or 1-800-649-2424, by email at Consumer@uvm.edu, or by mail to: Consumer Assistance Program, 146 University Place, Burlington, VT 05405.

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