1. Limited Grounds for Termination of Service
The only reason your service can be shut off is for failure to pay for service at your current address.15 (Also note that you may be able to get terminated service restored even if you owe money from your current address; see the section in this chapter on Special Protections Against Shut-offs).
You cannot be shut off for charges owed from a prior address or for money owed by a prior occupant.16 You also cannot be shut off for non-service-related charges such as rental fees on appliances purchased from a utility company or charges for repair work performed by the utility company.17
2. Your Landlord Fails to Pay
If a landlord is responsible for the electricity or gas in your building and fails to pay the bills, a company cannot shut off service in the building until the tenants have been given at least 30 days' notice.18 Because many of these landlord-tenant cases can become very complicated, you should immediately call the DPU if you are in this situation and also try to get legal help. Do not expect to get legal help from the DPU.
Tenants can avoid the shut-off by banding together and agreeing to pay a "projected bill." You have a right to deduct from your rent any payments you make to the utility company, and you are protected from retaliation by the landlord. If you withhold rent for this purpose, you may also ask the DPU to establish a payment plan.
Tenants generally cannot be held responsible for any portion of the landlord's previous bills. The utility company can petition for a hearing at the DPU to show that the tenants should pay part or all of the previous bills, but to win such a hearing the company has to prove that the tenants withheld more rent than it would take to pay the bills, that the tenants had no other reason for withholding rent, and that it would not be an undue burden for the tenants to pay the bills.19
The failure of a landlord to pay for and provide utilities to tenants will usually violate other state housing laws. For example, if a landlord does not provide electricity or gas for heat during the winter, she is violating the state Sanitary Code. Tenants who bring lawsuits against landlords for these violations can win up to three months' rent and attorneys' fees. Tenants may also want to ask the court to appoint a temporary landlord called a receiver to manage the building. For more information on receiverships, see Chapter 8: Receiverships.
16 . G.L. c. 164, §124 (customer cannot be shut off for bill at prior address). G.L. c. 164, §125 (customer cannot be shut off for bill of prior occupant); Cromwell v. Boston Gas Co., DPU 18123 (1974).