A Manhattan federal judge has certified a class of 20,000 taxi and for-hire vehicle drivers whose licenses were summarily suspended by the City's Taxi and Limousine Commission and who were later denied fair hearings to contest those suspensions.
For years, the TLC summarily suspended taxi drivers who were arrested (not convicted and yet to be tried) for a long list of misdemeanor offenses or on any felony offense. The TLC then allowed the drivers a hearing to determine whether that suspension should be extended pending resolution of the criminal charges. But a federal appeals court ruled in 2019 that the hearings were shams— no driver was ever reinstated until the criminal charges were dismissed.
On March 2, Judge Richard J. Sullivan certified the case— which was filed in 2006—as a class action. Judge Sullivan emphasized that the question already decided on appeal, that the drivers were denied due process of law, was the dominant issue in the case. All of the suspended drivers were denied their constitutional rights. While the amount of damages each driver deserves would vary from case to case, those damages could be determined in individual proceedings.
The cabdriver's case has a long history both in the district court and on appeal. One set of drivers sued in 2006, alleging that their suspensions-on-arrest could only be extended if the TLC could prove that the driver's licensure posed a direct and substantial threat to public safety, but that neither the hearing judges nor the TLC chair ever considered the relevant factors in determining whether the driver posed a genuine threat. The result was that few drivers even requested hearings and those who did lost every time.
Judge Sullivan, who now sits on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, dismissed the case in 2009 in a decision that was reversed on appeal in 2011. Judge Sullivan rejected the drivers' claims a second time in 2016 after a bench trial, concluding the drivers had “failed to prove” their claims. In 2019, a federal appeals court reversed that decision.
In a 60-page decision deciding two related cases, the appeals court concluded that the TLC hearings were “meaningless.” It then concluded that, in light of the drivers' “enormous” interest in pursuing their livelihoods, the unacceptably high risk that drivers were suspended in error, and the fact that additional safeguards could be provided with minimal burden on the City and the TLC, the systemic refusal to consider relevant evidence in the hearing process was unconstitutional.
The Court's 2019 ruling concluded: “A lengthy deprivation of property, based on an arrest without a judicial determination of probable cause and without a deeper inquiry into whether the deprivation is appropriate, violates the Constitution's guarantee of procedural due process.”
Today's decision by Judge Sullivan means that drivers who were never offered a fair chance at reinstatement can seek damages.
The key factor in assuring certification was that the primary issue was the same for all class members. Judge Sullivan wrote:
"Here, the primary issue – already resolved in Plaintiffs' favor – is whether TLC's post- suspension notice and hearing procedures were unconstitutional during the class period. And although Defendants have pointed out significant individualized issues as to damages, they identify none as to liability that would be sufficient to defeat certification....
In fact, Defendants appear to concede that they are at least liable for the procedural due process violation stemming from the constitutionally insufficient pre-hearing notice; they acknowledge that the “proposed class members each received a defective hearing notice,” and further “recognize that a finding of a procedural due process violation could result in nominal damages awards without additional evidence of injury.”) Moreover,although not all class members availed themselves of a post-suspension hearing, those who did clearly suffered a procedural due process violation based on the constitutionally inadequate hearing.... Finally, there would be no need for “individualized proceedings to determine class membership,” as all drivers were subject to the same post-suspension process and TLC maintained records of drivers who received a pre-hearing notice (and those who requested a hearing).... Accordingly, as to liability, common issues predominate.