Court Backs Solar Groups in Petition Feud

Posted By: Garnie Holmes Legislative/Regulatory ,

By Jim Saunders

Four years after the demise of their proposal, backers of a controversial solar-energy ballot initiative could get a payday.
A federal appeals court Tuesday upheld an arbitration award to the groups Floridians for Solar Choice and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in a legal battle with a California petition-gathering firm that worked on the abandoned 2016 ballot initiative.

A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments by PCI Consultants, Inc., about the arbitration process and backed a $2 million award that included damages, interest, costs and fees. A federal district judge approved the award after PCI Consultants, Floridians for Solar Choice and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy went to arbitration.

The contract dispute stems from an effort to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot that sought to increase the use of solar power by taking steps such as easing regulations. In part, it would have allowed businesses to generate and sell up to two megawatts of solar power to customers on the same or neighboring properties.

Floridians for Solar Choice, which was heavily backed by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, hired PCI Consultants to collect the 683,149 petition signatures that would have been needed to put the measure on the ballot. But the initiative drew heavy opposition from the state’s utility industry and, ultimately, was scuttled.

The legal battle involved a 2015 contract in which PCI Consultants was paid $5.25 per petition, with $2 of that amount coming from Floridians for Solar Choice and $3 coming from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy for “voter education,” according to the appeals-court ruling.

The relationship between the company and the solar groups “fell apart” in November 2015, after the groups had paid $1.27 million under the contract and $132,000 for expenses, the ruling said. PCI Consultants withheld 217,000 signed petitions, contending the solar groups had failed to pay an additional $212,000 in expenses.

The legal dispute centered, in part, on PCI Consultants’ decision to withhold those petitions and the request for additional expenses. Also, the dispute involved arguments about part of the expense money going toward PCI Consultants’ effort to collect petition signatures for a separate ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana --- a measure that passed in November 2016.

In the appeal, PCI Consultants raised a series of issues about the arbitration process, including that the solar groups had initially sought damages based on $2.25 per petition and later improperly sought damages based on $5.25 per petition.
But the Atlanta-based appeals court disagreed.

“While PCI argues that SACE (the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy) was not damaged because it was paying for education and not signatures --- and thus was not entitled to the additional $3 per petition -- the arbitrator found that SACE was damaged, explaining that SACE agreed to pay $3 per petition as an additional funding source for the signatures. We can find no error there,” said the 14-page ruling by appeals-court judges William Pryor, Britt Grant and Stanley Marcus.

Article reposted with permission from The News Service of Florida.