By Errol Louis
It turns out that the same MTA that fails, frustrates and delays New Yorkers daily shows astounding, relentless energy when it comes to seizing the tax refunds and slapping liens on the wages of subway customers accused of breaking low-level rules like smoking on a platform or riding between cars.
In some cases, the agency has been dunning people accused of petty violations dating back more than 20 years — even in cases where the agency itself has long since lost or destroyed any record of the underlying offense.
That is what happened to Nathaniel Robinson of East Tremont, who is currently looking for work and most recently held a job as a janitor at public housing complexes around the city. After some tough years that included homelessness, he filed his taxes and expected a refund — but instead got a letter from the city’s Department of Finance explaining that the money had been seized to pay off a 22-year-old old transit summons.
“I was supposed to get about $180, and they took everything from me,” Robinson said. “I know to some people it may not seem like a substantial amount, but to me it really hurt bad, hurt my pockets bad.”
Robinson discovered that, according to the MTA, he had an outstanding summons for “unsafe riding” in April of 1997 and another for smoking in the subway in March of 2003.
Raise your hand if you remember where you were and what you did on April 16, 1997.
During several trips to the Transit Adjudication Bureau — including some with an attorney — Robinson was told he’d have to pay $10 per document to even see the proof that a summons from 22 years ago existed. There are no waivers on the document fee for very low income people or folks like Robinson who’d been homeless.
The agency also said that the default judgment, plus fees and 9% interest, means that he still owes $475.51.
This bureaucratic madness has resulted in a federal class-action lawsuit, filed last week by a quartet of public-interest groups, led by the New Economy Project.
“Right now, what we’re seeing is that the MTA is acting as cop, prosecutor, judge, jury and debt collector all at once,” says Susan Shin, the group’s legal director. “They’re issuing these tickets, they’re enforcing these judgments, they go after people for money. But they’re not telling people what they’re about.”
David Evans of Brooklyn, a Marine veteran and former delivery man, spent time in homeless shelters where he knows that his identity was stolen. So when the MTA hit him with tickets dating back to 1999 — and began seizing his wages and tax refunds — he sought legal help.
“Someone had gotten a ticket. I don’t know. It may have been me. I dispute it. I don’t think it was me, but they never proved to me that it was me,” Evans said. “They put it on me, and then they started to take my money.”
The $50 per week he was getting charged was money Evans can’t afford to part with.
“It seems to me to be like a scam, a money-making machine for the [MTA],” he said. “In order to fund New York City Transit, they take the citizens’ money out of their working income, take the citizens’ working income in order to supplement the transit system, even if they can’t prove that an offense had been committed.”
Those who have fallen into the MTA’s bureaucratic maze should call the New Economy Project’s Financial Justice Hotline at 212-925-4929 and sign up for the lawsuit.
And it goes without saying that transit honchos should fix their collections practices before the lawsuit results in another big expense the agency can’t afford.