By Sasha Gonzales
The MTA is using courts to seize the tax refunds of low-income African-Americans across the city—including Bronx residents—for decades-old violations, a new class action lawsuit alleges.
Straphangers expecting tax refunds instead received letters from the city’s Department of Finance explaining that some or all of their refunds had been withheld in order to satisfy judgements for offenses like “unsafe riding,” “smoking,” and “obstruction of seating,” according to the suit filed Feb. 13 in the U.S. District Court’s Southern District.
Attorneys for the New Economy Project, part of the legal team handling the suit, said the targeted riders they’ve spoken with are exclusively low-income people of color, some of whom used to be homeless. None received any prior notice of the judgements against them, the suit states, and suddenly found themselves trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare.
After receiving “status letters” telling them their tax funds had been seized, some riders asked the MTA for documentation–only to be informed that those documents were no longer available, the suit alleges. Others were allegedly told they would have to pay a viewing charge of $10 per document, in some cases totaling hundreds of dollars.
“The MTA is acting as cop, prosecutor, judge, jury, and debt collector all at once. They’re issuing these tickets, they’re enforcing these judgements, they go after people for money, but they’re not telling people what they’re about,” Attorney Susan Shin of the New Economy Project told NY1.
Among the named plaintiffs in the suit are Nathaniel Robinson of East Tremont, a formerly homeless man who is currently unemployed and survives by using public assistance and food stamps.
In 2017 Robinson received notices from the MTA’s Transit Adjudication Bureau (TAB)—which processes subway summonses—telling him the city ‘s finance department had applied his New York State tax refunds for 2014, 2015, and 2016, to a TAB debt of $189, the suit alleges. The debt stemmed from smoking and unsafe riding summonses allegedly issued to Robinson in 1997 and 2003.
Robinson was later told that, with additional interest and fees assessed by the MTA, he owed $475 on top of the original fines. Robinson says he has no memory of receiving summonses for the alleged violations.
Like the other straphangers interviewed by the New Economy Project, Robinson never received notice of any court judgement against him, the suit states. Nor was he given an opportunity to challenge the judgement.
In every case known to project’s attorneys, the tax refund seizures were for a few hundred dollars or less.
The suit claims the MTA violated the due process rights of Robinson and other riders under the constitution.
It’s unclear why the MTA decided to pursue decades old court judgements, but a 2016 state audit found TAB was in possession of around 1.7 million summonses, with outstanding fines and fees totaling $383.2 million. Among the audit’s recommendations was that the MTA “ensure all [violations] that are not paid within nine months of issuance are referred to the collection agency in a timely manner.”
The New Economy Project says riders who had tax dollars seized, and want to join the lawsuit, can call their financial justice hotline at 212-925-4929.