How the MTA Targets Poor New Yorkers of Color to Collect on Old, Alleged Debts (Even During the Pandemic)

Posted by Raquel Villagra

The pandemic has placed the MTA at the center of the news, but its violations of New Yorkers’ civil rights have gone on for years. Through our NYC Financial Justice Hotline, New Economy Project has helped dozens of New Yorkers presenting the same disturbing facts: Without any notice, the MTA took their tax refunds to pay old, alleged tickets they didn’t recognize. When requested, the MTA refused to provide a copy of the tickets, leaving them without necessary information to try to challenge the tickets and get their money back. These abusive practices disproportionately harm Black and brown New Yorkers, and are yet another way people are punished for being poor.

In 2019, we helped callers confront this ongoing injustice by suing the NYC Transit Authority, an arm of the MTA, in federal court. The class action lawsuit, brought with co-counsel, charges the Transit Authority with systematically violating the due process rights of thousands of New Yorkers who have had their tax refunds taken by the agency without legally-required notice or a fair opportunity to contest the takings.

Nathaniel Robinson and David Evans are the named plaintiffs in the class action. In 2017, Mr. Robinson discovered that the Transit Authority had taken his entire $189 state tax refund for a ticket it allegedly issued to him in 1997. He had received no notice that he owed the Transit Authority any money. Mr. Evans is a disabled Marine Corps veteran and formerly homeless. In 2017, he learned that the Transit Authority planned to intercept his entire state tax refund of more than $400 for alleged tickets from nearly two decades earlier.

Nearly three-fourths of the New Yorkers who have called our hotline with this issue are Black or Latinx, and almost all are extremely low-income. Mr. Robinson and Mr. Evans are both Black, and their government benefits barely cover their basic expenses. Many are formerly or currently homeless. Often the tickets alleged are for fare-dodging or taking up more than one seat, a.k.a. “seat obstruction”—which one formerly homeless New Yorker called out as “coded language targeted against homeless New Yorkers.”

The MTA has continued to collect on tickets despite the COVID-19 pandemic, even as New Yorkers face unprecedented health and financial crises. Marc Davis, another New Yorker we helped through the hotline, is a Black, disabled Bronx resident who left the shelter system a few years ago and whose disability benefits and food stamps barely sustain him. Around the end of March 2020, shortly after New York State went into lockdown, the MTA intercepted Mr. Davis’s entire $168 state tax refund—even though Governor Cuomo had imposed a moratorium on collecting other kinds of debts allegedly owed to the state.

As we challenge the violations of thousands of New Yorkers’ civil rights in court, we must also address structural racism at the root of policing and other institutions. NYPD data from 2019 showed that Black and Latinx New Yorkers comprised 86% of arrests for fare evasion and 71% of non-arrest tickets; and NYPD disproportionately enforces fare evasion in high-poverty Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Whereas someone with means might simply opt to pay a ticket they dispute to avoid the hassle, someone who cannot afford to do so gets entangled in the MTA’s Kafkaesque debt collection system, which withholds information necessary to meaningfully challenge a ticket. These hurdles are costly: the MTA charges exorbitant interest on unpaid fines for up to 20 years. As a result, New Yorkers who live on the financial brink are forced to sit by, year after year, as their alleged debt grows and the MTA takes their tax refunds.

Mr. Evans hopes the class action lawsuit will achieve fundamental changes. “The MTA had no right to take my tax refunds without giving me a chance to defend myself,” he says. “I brought this lawsuit so the MTA will stop doing this to New Yorkers.”

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