In a transmission line case at the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC), the first thing a landowner does is file a request to intervene. The first step in the legal process usually is a prehearing conference. No later than soon after the intervention deadline, the PUC refers the case to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) to conduct a hearing. The first SOAH order sets a date for a prehearing conference in Austin that is open to the public.
The administrative law judge(s) (ALJ) and parties discuss these matters at a prehearing conference:
- motions and other preliminary matters;
- procedural schedule that includes the hearing dates;
- procedures to be followed before and during the hearing; and
- other matters that may assist in the ALJ’s review of the application in a fair and efficient matter.
Where is the prehearing conference held?
In smaller cases, the prehearing conference usually is held at a SOAH hearing room. SOAH’s offices are at the Clements State Office Building at 300 W. 15th Street in Austin. Maps and directions to the Clements State Office Building are available here. A map of SOAH’s fourth floor hearing rooms is available here. Prehearing conferences often are held in Room 402 or 404. There often is street parking on Lavaca Street or Colorado Street and on some of the nearby side streets. The Wells Fargo Tower Parking Garage on the northwest corner of Colorado and 15th often has paid public parking. A map and rates for the garage are available here.
In larger cases, the ALJ may hold the prehearing conference at an Austin hotel. This allows for larger numbers of landowners and attorneys to attend and participate.
Must intervenors attend the prehearing conference?
Intervenors do not have to attend the prehearing conference. The SOAH order setting the prehearing conference date, however, usually strongly encourages parties to attend the prehearing conference. Attending the prehearing conferences allows unrepresented intervenors to learn about the rules and procedures that will govern the case and to ask questions about the process.
I attend the prehearing conference to represent my client. Many of my clients have found attending the prehearing conference is beneficial because they can see the “players”: Commission Staff, intervenors, attorneys, the utility’s employees, and the ALJ. This knowledge gives them a better understanding of the process.
What happens at the prehearing conference?
The ALJ usually takes time to explain the process to landowner intervenors without a lawyer. Attorneys who have not represented a client in a transmission line case also benefit from the ALJ’s presentation. The ALJ usually has a handout for unrepresented parties and will answer questions about the administrative law process and the hearing.
The primary purpose of a prehearing conference is to set the procedural schedule for the case. Usually, the attorneys negotiate around schedule conflicts and the time for case activities. The ALJ often includes in the initial order setting the prehearing conference any conflicts in the ALJ’s schedule or timing issues the parties should address.
How do parties develop the procedural schedule?
To develop a procedural schedule, the ALJ and parties in a case work back from the time the Public Utility Commission must complete its review of the application. Transmission line routing cases usually have a deadline for completion of one year from the utility filing its application. When the project is necessary for the reliability of the electric grid, the PUC must complete its review by six months from the utility filing its application.
How much time does the PUC need for its review?
In the one-year cases, the ALJs try to build in five weeks at the end of the process for the Public Utility Commission to hold two open meetings to consider the ALJ’s proposal for decision (PFD) in public and to issue the Commission’s order.
How long does it take the ALJ to prepare the PFD?
Besides writing the PFD, the ALJ also needs time to review the evidence and parties’ briefs. The ALJ often asks for six to eight weeks to prepare the PFD. The procedural schedule will build in time for the parties to file exceptions (objections) to the PFD and replies to those exceptions. This often is three to four weeks. The optimum time for the ALJ to issue the PFD is 60 days before the Commission’s deadline to decide.
How much time does the procedural schedule allow for briefing?
After the hearing, and before the ALJ issues the PFD, parties need time to write briefs and reply briefs. Often, that process can take four to six weeks.
How many weeks does the post-hearing schedule require?
All these activities take from 18 to 23 weeks after the hearing. Working back from the one-year deadline, parties at the prehearing conference will look at their schedules to set a date for the hearing 18 to 23 weeks before the Commission’s deadline for approval of the application.
What takes place before the hearing?
The parties also work back from the hearing date to set dates for pre-hearing deadlines. These dates include identification of witnesses for cross-examination, filing of testimony, and discovery. For projects critical to reliability of the electric grid, the six-month deadline compresses all deadlines into a much tighter timeframe.
What else happens at the prehearing conference?
The time before and after a prehearing conference allows parties to discuss their positions and concerns with other parties. Settlement discussions can take place at the prehearing conference and may continue throughout the case.
The utility usually has experts and consultants at the prehearing conference who were involved in the preparation of the application. Those experts and consultants are available to answer landowners’ question. The utility’s consultants meet with landowners to review large maps showing their property and the proposed segment(s) on their property. Landowners can ensure maps accurately reflect their property lines.
How long should I plan to attend the prehearing conference?
A prehearing conference can take as little as one or two hours. It also can take several hours to work with all the parties’ schedules, questions, and concerns. When there are many intervenors without lawyers, the ALJ will take extra time to ensure unrepresented landowners understand the process and what is required of them.
For more information about transmission line lawyer Brad Bayliff, the author of this post, please see the About Brad Bayliff page on this website.