The plaintiffs in the case alleges that the I-495 and I-95/I-395 HOT Lanes operator (Transurban) and its debt-collection agents (Faneuil, Inc. and Law Enforcement Systems, LLC (“LES”)) violated state and federal law by assessing and seeking to collect crippling administrative fees and penalties for allegedly missed tolls.
Drivers who use the HOT Lanes are charged tolls ranging from $0.20 to $1.25 per mile each way via an E-ZPass transponder mounted on the driver’s windshield. The lawsuit alleges that when the E-ZPass is not read and a minimal toll violation occurs, often due to no fault of the driver, Transurban fails to give adequate notice and then assesses and attempts to collect thousands of dollars in illegal penalties and fees against the driver.
The Defendants have charged exorbitant sums to the Plaintiffs in the lawsuit. For example, according to the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff Mary Elise Pizarro of Alexandria used the I-495 HOT Lanes without incident for her round trip to work. Then, in May, 2013, Transurban registered “toll violations” during a few of Ms. Pizarro’s trips for no apparent reason. Indeed, during the same period, Ms. Pizarro’s E-Z Pass transponder correctly registered her toll payments for half of her round trip commute. Unbeknownst to Ms. Pizarro, over a two-week period, she purportedly missed about $20 in tolls. More than a year later, Transurban sued Ms. Pizarro for a staggering $9,440.90 in fees and penalties—nearly 500 times the purported missed tolls.
In denying the Motion to Dismiss, Judge Cacheris concluded that the Plaintiffs had adequately alleged that Transurban’s administrative fees and civil penalties violated their Eighth Amendment right against excessive fines; that Transurban’s actions had denied them their constitutionally guaranteed right to procedural due process; that Faneuil and LES had violated the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act; that Transurban violated Maryland and Virginia’s consumer protection statutes; and that Transurban illegally interfered with their E-ZPass contracts in violation of Virginia law. In allowing these claims to proceed, Judge Cacheris characterized the Defendants’ administrative fees and civil penalties as “facially disproportionate” to the missed tolls, noted that “the alleged issues are not isolated incidents but rather a pattern of alleged illegality,” and wrote that “under the facts alleged, Plaintiffs are not habitual, scofflaw toll violators, but rather bona vide victims of a mechanical glitch.”
James Pizzirusso, a partner at Hausfeld remarked, “Today’s decision is a victory for the Plaintiffs and for the thousands of others they seek to represent. Judge Cacheris’ opinion is the first step toward vindicating the rights of HOT Lanes’ users who have paid unconstitutionally punitive administrative fees and civil penalties to Transurban, Faneuil, and LES. We look forward to pursuing this case and seeking redress for those impacted by the Defendants’ egregious tactics.”
Judge Cacheris also allowed Plaintiffs the opportunity to amend their complaint to address the state law claims that were dismissed. The case will now proceed to the discovery phase, and the Defendants will be required to turn over internal company documents to the Plaintiffs. A trial is expected in March, 2016.
Hausfeld is representing the Plaintiffs, along with co-counsel Tycko & Zavareei; Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP; DiMuroGinsberg, PC; Wade, Friedman & Sutter P.C.; and Zimmerman Reed, PLLP.
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NOTES TO EDITORS
Hausfeld is a leading global law firm with offices in Berlin, Brussels, London, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. The firm has a broad range of complex litigation expertise, particularly in consumer, antitrust/competition, financial services, sports and entertainment, environmental, mass torts, and human rights matters. For more information about the firm, please visit: www.hausfeld.com.