LARRY G. SCHUSTER, Plaintiff and Appellant,
NORTHWESTERN ENERGY COMPANY, Defendant and Appellee.
Submitted on Briefs: November 20, 2013
APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Thirteenth Judicial District, In and For the County of Yellowstone, Cause No. DV 12-0021 Honorable Mary Jane Knisely, Presiding Judge.
For Appellant: Larry G. Schuster; self-represented; Billings, Montana
For Appellee: Sarah N. Norcott; Attorney at Law; Helena, Montana
JIM RICE, Judge.
¶1 Larry Schuster (Schuster) appeals from the order of the Thirteenth Judicial District Court, Yellowstone County, dismissing his complaint against NorthWestern Energy (NWE) based on lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The District Court concluded the Public Service Commission (PSC) had the power to hear Schuster's complaint against NWE, a public utility, and only after the PSC acted could Schuster seek judicial relief. Because Schuster had failed to exhaust this administrative remedy, the court determined it was without jurisdiction to hear the claim. We reverse and remand.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
¶2 As alleged, Schuster was an electric service customer of NWE (formerly Montana Power Company) for a residence he owned in Great Falls from 1991 to 2009. On or around January 9, 2009, NWE disconnected electric service to Schuster's residence based on an outstanding balance of $16 on his utility bill. Schuster alleges the termination of service caused the furnace to fail, which led to water pipes freezing and bursting. The water damage to the property resulted in damages of approximately $100, 000 to real property, and $40, 000 to personal property.
¶3 Schuster filed an action in district court alleging property damage due to NWE's negligence and negligence per se in terminating his electric service. Specifically, Schuster alleged that NWE terminated his service without legal justification and in violation of Admin. R. M. 38.5.1402 (termination without justification), 38.5.1405 (failure to give notice prior to termination), and 38.5.1410 (termination when temperature expected to fall below freezing).
¶4 NWE filed a motion to dismiss based on lack of subject-matter jurisdiction for Schuster's failure to exhaust administrative remedies before the PSC. NWE argued that the PSC was the entity that must determine whether it had violated the administrative rules or its tariff with the PSC. The District Court granted NWE's motion and dismissed the action. Schuster filed a motion for relief from judgment pursuant to M. R. Civ. P. 60(b), which was deemed denied after 60 days. This appeal followed.
¶5 Following dismissal of his complaint in District Court, Schuster filed a formal complaint with the PSC. That matter is pending.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
¶6 A district court's determination that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction is a conclusion of law. We review a lower court's dismissal of a complaint based on lack of subject-matter jurisdiction to determine whether the court's interpretation of law is correct. Mt. Water Co. v. ...