By Rachel Holiday Smith
Marc Davis was set to get $168 back from the state in his tax refund this year. And the 53-year-old Bronx resident says that money would have gone a long way to keeping him on his feet.
He got out of the city’s homeless shelter system less than two years ago and got by last year on $780 he receives every month in disability benefits, plus food stamps and wages from two months of work at a department store. He lives with two roommates to make ends meet.
But his state refund never arrived.
That’s because Davis is among a group of people hit with debt judgments stemming from years-old tickets allegedly issued to them in the subway — even as the Gov. Andrew Cuomo paused collection of other types of debt owed to the state amid the COVID-19 crisis.
After inquiries late last week from THE CITY, the MTA on Sunday promised to alter the policy. But clearing up old fines may be no easy task.
In Davis’ case, the state-run MTA has nine tickets in his name dating back to 1995, according to a letter from the agency shared with THE CITY.
“At that time, I was homeless and living in the streets,” he told THE CITY. “I don’t even remember some of these tickets.”
A few of the violations the authority contends he owes have passed beyond the 20-year statute of limitations for judgments in New York and have been dismissed, his legal advisor said. But the rest have accumulated interest — at 9% a year — to total more than $2,000.
Davis can’t afford the bill.
“Listen, I’m indigent,” he said.
“By you guys taking my taxes, you’re hurting me,” he said of the transit agency.
Three tickets, which including interest range between $150 and $200, are for “non-payment of fare,” according to a letter from the MTA to Davis. A fourth, for $194.25, is for “obstruction of seating or other,” the document says.
The enforcer of the old debts is the MTA’s “Transit Adjudication Bureau,” or TAB.
‘Tip of the Iceberg’
The nonprofit New Economy Project has recently heard from several New Yorkers through its hotline who are facing the same issue as Davis: state tax refunds held up because of TAB, said Susan Shin, NEP’s legal director.
The group’s legal hotline, she said, is often an “amazing barometer” for issues affecting low-income New Yorkers.
“When we get two or three calls, then we start to think this is a pattern — this is probably the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
Following questions from THE CITY, the MTA said it would suspend collections on TAB violations from this calendar year. All other collections from years previous will now be referred to the State Attorney General’s tax refund offset program, which provides debt relief to those affected by COVID-19.
“Anyone is eligible to apply for relief in light of the pandemic,” said MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan. “Decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.”
Shin said the change, coming two months into the COVID-19 outbreak in New York, is “too little, too late” — and may be onerous on low-income New Yorkers who now have to individually navigate bureaucracy to get relief.
“The MTA really should have shut down its whole collection machine as soon as the crisis began,” she said. “The relief should have been automatic from the beginning.”
In addition to pushing the state to change its policy for TAB debts, Shin’s group has been pushing the governor for a full moratorium on ongoing consumer debt collection actions in New York.
NYPD officers and the MTA’s Transit Inspectors issue the tickets that end up with TAB.
The most recent audit by the State Comptroller’s Office in 2016 found 1.7 million outstanding TAB summonses as of the end of 2015.
Shin said that summonses often are given as “punitive actions against people who are homeless” — for such offenses as turnstile jumping, smoking on a platform or taking up more than one seat.
“Instead of getting the help they need, they are issued these civil summonses,” she said.
To make matters more complicated, many of the people who have come to New Economy Project for help with TAB tickets say they never received a notice about the alleged debt owed, or the ticket had the wrong name, address or other basic information.
The 2016 audit found 40% of TAB summonses had the wrong address.
Left in Limbo
That’s a due process issue, Shin noted, which is why the group filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the MTA last year. NEP was joined in the suit by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice (NCLEJ), Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and the law firm of Jerry Hartman.
“All of a sudden, their refunds were taken, and this is their first inkling of this,” said Claudia Wilner, director of litigation and advocacy for NCLEJ. “They then go to TAB to try to figure out why this agency is taking my money. And what they encounter is just Byzantine procedural barriers and no actual information.”
Shin said many of her clients who want to defend themselves against these tickets request copies of the original violations from TAB — and have been told to come in for a hearing before the agency can say whether or not it can find the records.
“How can people defend themselves — or even prepare to defend themselves — against something they’ve never seen?” she said.
For Davis, it’s been an uphill battle to fight to get his refund back. To get original copies of his tickets, TAB told him he’d be charged an additional $10 per summons.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” he said.
Shin and the New Economy Project is helping Davis with paperwork.
On its website, the MTA bureau states “if your tax refund was impacted due to a judgment in connection with a TAB summons,” you may request a hearing by filling out this form and submitting it to TAB.Inquiry@nyct.com.
Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the TAB office on Gallatin Place in Downtown Brooklyn is closed. So, Davis isn’t sure when he’ll get a response.
“I was going to take it in person, to show up and show that I’m taking this seriously, but this coronavirus thing … it’s left me in limbo,” he said.