On February 8, 2021, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Southern District of Mississippi’s dismissal of a plaintiffs’ complaint for failure to state a claim. Harper v. So. Pine Electric Cooperative, 987 F.3d 417 (5th Cir. 2021). The complaint was brought by a member-ratepayer of the Cooperative alleging that Mississippi law requires electric cooperatives like Southern Pine to distribute expenses over and above what is needed for operating expenses, payments of principal and interest, improvements, new construction, etc., back to its members. The members claimed that Southern Pine should be required to distribute all funds over an asset-to-equity ratio of 30%. For Southern Pine, it would have required them to distribute $112.5 million of a retained $248 million in accumulated income in 2016. The Southern District of Mississippi held that “the modern version of the statute, § 77-5-235(5) applied retroactively, and, in any event, plaintiffs failed to state a claim under either version.”
The Fifth Circuit found both of the plaintiffs’ arguments lacking regarding which of two Mississippi versions of a statute applied. First, the plaintiffs could not “point to any case indicating that the Stone exception applies only in the limited circumstances for which they advocate.” The court surmised that if they accepted the plaintiffs’ contentions, both the Supreme Court of Mississippi and courts within the circuit have applied the Stone exception erroneously. Instead, the court used the Supreme Court of Mississippi’s characterization: “[E]very right or remedy created solely by the repealed or modified statute disappears or falls with the repealed or modified statute . . . save that no such repeal or modification shall be permitted to impair the obligation of a contract or to abrogate a vested right.” With no contract at issue, the court then turned to whether a vested right had been abrogated.
In Mississippi, a vested right is one that must have “become a completed, consummated right for present or future enjoyment; not contingent; unconditional; absolute.” Here, the court looked at the previous statute to determine whether it conferred a vested right to the plaintiffs or not. Importantly, the court found that the relevant question is not whether the board must return excess revenues, but “[w]ho gets to determine when the revenues become ‘not needed’ for the defined purposes such that they must ‘be returned to the members?’” Unambiguously, the statute leaves that discretion to “the board” as it “may from time to time prescribe.” Only when the board makes that determination does the statute require the funds be returned to the members, which makes the right contingent to the members and not vested.
Having determined the modern statute applies, the court agreed with the Southern District of Mississippi in holding that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim. The board will only be required to return excess funds when “it has determined that the revenues are truly excess, i.e., ‘not needed’ as ‘reserves.’” “Thus, to state a claim, plaintiffs must identify revenues beyond what is ‘needed’ for the purposes outlined in the statute – as determined by the board.”
Plaintiffs also argued to impose a specific asset-to-equity ratio above which all revenues must be deemed excessive and returned to the member-ratepayers. The court did find this argument persuasive even if it would make for good public policy simply because “it is not what the statute requires.” The court concluded that the board is the final arbiter for when these distributions are made and as such, these plaintiffs failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted.
Jeremy Fetty is a partner in the law firm of Parr Richey Frandsen Patterson Kruse with offices in Lebanon and Indianapolis. He often advises businesses and utilities (for profit, non-profit and cooperative) on organizational, human resources, and transactional matters and drafts and reviews commercial contracts.
The statements contained herein are matters of opinion and general information only and are not to be considered legal advice and should not be construed to form an attorney-client relationship. If you have any questions regarding this article, please contact an attorney.