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Judge says unclear if NYC is fair when revoking taxi licenses

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge in New York said it is an open question whether the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission treats taxi drivers fairly in hearings over whether to revoke their licenses.

U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein made the assessment in a 50-page decision on Thursday, in which he reviewed challenges by drivers to revocations of licenses because of failed drug tests or some criminal convictions, including misdemeanors.

Stein nonetheless declined to void the license revocation process as unconstitutional, and also dismissed some claims by the plaintiffs.

"We are pleased that the court found that the city's overall procedures were fair," Jerald Horowitz, senior counsel to the New York City Law Department administrative law division, said in a statement.

Decisions on revocations have been referred to the city's Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings since 2007.

The 6-1/2-year-old lawsuit by seven former drivers, who seek class action status, claimed the TLC violated their due process rights by taking away their licenses or recommending revocation.

These drivers also complained that pre-revocation hearings to assess their "fitness" are a "sham" because they are handled by administrative law judges appointed by and beholden to the TLC, and don't require the commission to prove what it alleges.

The TLC countered that the procedures are fair, and that the drivers did not overcome a "presumption" that the administrative law judges are honest and have integrity.

In his decision, Stein said a "genuine dispute" exists as to the judges' impartiality, including over whether supervisors pressure them to rule against drivers.

He pointed to one judge's testimony that supervisors "would be very upset" if he issued another pro-driver ruling, although that judge never explained how he might be punished, if at all.

"Although plaintiffs have proffered considerable evidence of bias, the dispute remains in light of the presumption of honesty and defendants' countervailing evidence," he wrote. "Significant evidence" supports both sides' views, he said.

Stein issued mixed rulings on whether the seven named plaintiffs were denied due process in their individual cases.

The lawsuit sought to halt alleged illegal revocations, reinstate illegally revoked licenses, and ensure fair hearings.

"We don't see any dispute that the judges were systemically biased because they were hired and could be fired by the agency at any time," Dan Ackman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an interview. "We plan to pursue various points in this decision on appeal, and others at trial."

The case is Rothenberg et al v. Daus et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 08-00567.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Sandra Maler, Eric Walsh and Diane Craft)

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