The TLC Suspension Case


While the origins of the practice are unknown, for many years, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission has pursued a policy, rare if not unique, of suspending the license of any taxi driver who is arrested (not convicted, just arrested). The TLC suspends drivers who are arrested for just for any felony charge but for a long list of misdemeanor offenses, no questions asked, even if the alleged offense occurred off duty and had nothing to do with driving a cab or even of if it did not involve driving at all. Indeed, the vast majority of arrests do not.

The TLC's practice is to then afford the cabbie a post-suspension hearing, ostensibly to determine whether or not the license should remain suspended while the arrest charges are pending. The catch had long been these hearings were basically shams— as a federal appeals court would later determine— and no taxi driver was ever reinstated through the hearing process. It took more than a decade of litigation, however, for a federal appeals court to recognize this fact along with the reasons why: The TLC judges (and certainly the TLC chairman who had the final say over the suspensions) considered only the fact of the arrest and almost nothing about the driver's record or the underlying circumstances of the alleged offense. Ultimately that appeals court held in 2019 that TLC's hearing process was so flawed as to be unconstitutional in that it denied the suspended cabbies due process of law.

The 2019 federal court ruling led to a district court judge certifying in 2020 a plaintiff class of 20,000 drivers whose licenses had been suspended. All of these drivers were then potentially entitled to money damages for lost wages. At least in theory. But the drivers—none of whom are employees of the TLC or the City—  would have to prove their damages individually in front of U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Sullivan, the same district court judge who had dismissed the drivers' claims twice and whose decisions were reversed twice by the Court of Appeals.  

In the five years since the Court of Appeals 2019 decision favoring the cabbies, Judge Sullivan has held just one trial for just ten drivers (ten, not 10,000). All ten, selected at random, were awarded substantial damages by a jury this past fall. But since then, Judge Sullivan has not held a second trial. Meanwhile, the TLC's summary suspension practice (which the federal courts did not enjoin or find unconstitutional per se) persists. 


By way of background, the TLC's summary suspension policy goes back to at least 2003. A lawsuit attacking was filed in 2006 in a Manhattan federal court by Dan Ackman on behalf of a driver named Jonathan Nnebe, who was later joined by additional drivers as well as by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, all seeking class action status. The case was ultimately assigned to Judge Sullivan, an ex-prosecutor who had been nominated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush that same year.

But Judge Sullivan granted the City summary judgment, dismissing  the cabdrivers' claims as legally insufficient in 2009, concluding that the Constitution did not require the TLC to prove anything more than the fact that a driver had been arrested in order to suspend a driver without a hearing and to extend his suspension after a hearing.

Ackman, who had some background representing cabbies, joined by David Goldberg, a distinguished appellate lawyer, appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals revived the case in 2011. But before the case got to the point where cabbies might be awarded damages there was still a long way to go. Along the way there were years of obfuscations and or ignorant statements by TLC commissioners and lawyers about what occurred in the TLC's post-suspension hearing process, delaying resolution.

To hit the high points:

— After the remand in 2011, both sides again moved again for summary judgment. This time Judge Sullivan denied both sides' motions and ordered a trial to determine exactly what was happening at the TLC's post-suspension hearings.

—The cabdrivers were represented at that trial by Ackman and Goldberg and by lawyers from the Wall Street firm of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson.

—Just before the trial, the TLC and the City changed its position about what, if any, evidence, TLC judges, would consider at post-suspension hearings, leading Judge Sullivan to wonder whether a trial was even necessary. But ultimately the judge order the parties to proceed (but with the plaintiffs agreeing the have the case tried by the Judge Sullivan alone, not by a jury).

—The TLC's commissioners' testimony at the trial was so disingenuous that it led to this admonishment from Judge Sullivan near the close of the proceedings concerning the City's representations to the Court of Appeals: “I wouldn't want to be the lawyer that argued to the circuit given the record that's been developed here because I think the circuit may consider that to have been very disingenuous or ignorant [compared] to what the accurate state of play was.” Judge Sullivan said. “I mean, again, I think there is going to be a price to be paid for that statement to the circuit,” he added.

—While the cabdrivers had proved that the TLC judges did not consider anything other than whether the suspended cabdriver had been arrested and that the suspensions were always extended, Judge Sullivan later ruled on the law again in favor of the TLC and City.

—That ruling necessitated a second appeal by the cabdrivers.

—In 2017, while the Nnebe case was on appeal, another group a cabdrivers who had been suspended despite being arrested and being issued desk appearance tickets (meaning they were not even detained following their arrests). That case, title Stallworth v. Joshi, was later combined with Nnebe.

—In 2019, the second appeal resulted in a unanimous 60-page decision for the Second Circuit authored by Judge Gerard E. Lynch holding that the drivers had been denied due process of law at post-suspension hearings at least since 2003. The court meanwhile decided that the TLC could suspend a driver without a hearing so long as it afforded driver a legitimate and fair post-suspension hearing at which the TLC had the burden of proving that the driver's licensure posed a direct and substantial threat to public safety.

—In 2022, Judge Sullivan, having retained jurisdiction over the case despite having been elevated by President Trump to the Court of Appeals, certified a plaintiff class of roughly 20,000 drivers. Dan Ackman, David Goldberg and Shannon Liss-Riordan, a prominent Boston-based lawyer specializing in wage-and-hour litigation, were named as class counsel. But because the class was certified as to liability, not as to damages, each class member would have to prove separately what, if any, damages, he or she was owed as a result of the TLC's unconstitutional conduct.

—In the fall of 2023, Judge Sullivan scheduled a jury trial for 20 class members (out of 20,000) who were selected at random by the Clerk of the Court  for a jury trial. Ultimately, ten of the twenty appeared, none of whom had any prior relationship with the class counsel. The jury ruled in favor of all ten— meaning that the jury found that each of them would have been reinstated had he been afforded a fair post-suspension hearing— and awarded each substantial damages.

—Judge Sullivan has not scheduled a second trial.


—The Court of Appeals 2019 decision did not hold that the summary suspensions themselves were unconstitutional. But it did effectively require substantial changes in the post-suspension hearing practices.

—The drivers who have been suspended under the new regime are winning about 75% of the post-suspension hearings. But they really should be winning even more than that as even the drivers whose suspensions are extended are rarely convicted and are generally reinstated when their criminal charges are later dismissed. (And lately they ARE winning at an even higher rate)