By Jake Offenhartz
While not particularly good at executing major capital projects or managing a budget or even running trains much of the time, the MTA is apparently very adept at squeezing money out of low-income riders. So skilled, in fact, that a new lawsuit accuses the agency of quietly seizing some New Yorkers’ tax refunds for decades-old transit violations, many of them minor infractions for which the MTA has no current documentation.
The New Economy Project filed a class action lawsuit against the authority last week, after receiving several complaints from people who say they were informed by the Department of Finance that their tax refunds were being withheld to settle former subway violations. Those offenses ranged from “unsafe riding” to “obstruction of seating,” and in some cases were allegedly committed more than 20 years ago. Victims of the apparent shakedown say that when they inquired about their violations, they were told either the documents did not exist, or they’d have to pay for them.
“It’s a gross violation of due process,” Susan Shin, Legal Director of New Economy Project, told Gothamist. “It’s a basic fairness: if you’re going to have your money taken you should know what it’s for. You should have some meaningful way to challenge what’s going on.” (The lawsuit’s co-counsel includes the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the Drinker Biddle law firm, and the Barbara McDowell Foundation).
Shin added that the practice was “a true racial and economic injustice,” pointing out that all of the individuals who reported the seizures to the New Economy Project were low-income people of color.
One of the two plaintiffs named in the suit, Nathaniel Robinson, is a formerly homeless resident of East Tremont, who last worked as a NYCHA janitor. Robinson says he received a letter in 2017 explaining that $189 had been withheld from his state tax refund for money owed on “unsafe riding” and “smoking” violations, allegedly committed in 1997 and 2003 respectively. He later learned that he owes an additional $475.51 to the transit authority, thanks to processing fees and interest.
Multiple trips to the Transit Adjudication Bureau—the arm of the MTA responsible for processing summonses—did not yield further information about the offenses, which Robinson says he has no recollection of committing. One MTA employee informed him that the “alleged violations were unavailable for review—likely because the violations were too old,” according to the suit. A supervisor at the department allegedly confirmed that some violations may be too old to access, while others would cost $10 to view.
The second plaintiff named in the suit, David Evans, is a Marine veteran who was also formerly homeless. The MTA claims he committed ten violations between 1999 and 2005, for which he now owes $1,962. Evans doesn’t recall being involved in any of those incidents, and believes that his identity was stolen while living in a homeless shelter.
“It seems to me to be like a scam, a money-making machine for the [MTA],” Evans told NY1. “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.”
Asked how long the MTA has been diverting New Yorkers’ tax refunds into their own coffers, Shin told Gothamist that “it’s probably been happening for awhile,” but noted that the New Economy Project had seen an uptick in complaints in recent years. She speculated that the focus on long-forgotten infractions may be a response to a 2016 state audit, which found the MTA was “not adequately enforcing NYC Transit violations.”
A spokesperson for the MTA did not respond to a request for comment. You can read the full complaint here.