6/29/2017Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Shows Its Love For Tolling
Federal appeals court says it is reasonable for a Texas toll road to bill a motorist $3825 for inadvertently failing to pay $139 in tolls.
The Fifth Circuit US Court of Appeals could not hold back from sharing its love for toll roads. In a decision Tuesday, the three-judge panel gushed over the advantages of automated tolling systems as it upheld the legitimacy of slapping thousands of dollars in administrative fees against people who, for whatever reason, did not receive or pay an invoice for their tolls.
"The North Texas Tollway Authority has been a trendsetter in the move away from gated booths," Judge Gregg Costa wrote for the court. "As expected, the cashless system led to more drivers using the toll roads. Also as expected, many of them never paid after receiving the bill. This left the authority on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in unpaid tolls."
A group of motorists had formed a class action lawsuit to challenge the "outrageous" fees and bullying tactics of the tolling agency. The court held that the move to all-electronic tolling justified the toll road's increase in fees for not timely paying a toll from $10 to $25. Jennifer Bunch had $20 in tolls from a single invoice become $350 in fees. For Mirna Reyes, that turned $139 in tolls from a single inadvertently unpaid invoice into $3825 in fees. For Emmanuel Lewis, it turned a $387 debt into $10,005.
Lawyers for the affected motorists hired an economist to figure out that it actually only costs the toll road 94 cents to collect a toll, not $25. The toll road countered that it spent $52 million in an effort to collect just $42 million in fees. The judges sided with the government agency's numbers, saying they were reasonable compared to what they could have been.
"An astronomically high administrative fee, say $10,000 per violation, would be a potent incentive for drivers to convert to TollTags, thus furthering a legitimate governmental interest," Judge Costa explained. "But there would be a compelling case that the amount shocks the conscience."
Because state law authorizes the collection of a fee of up to $100 to "recover the cost of collecting the unpaid toll," the motorists argued that the failure to pay a single toll invoice should incur a fee of no more than $100, as a single instance of nonpayment. The tolling agency insisted the $25 fee for each individual instance of an unpaid toll was reasonable.
At the district court level, District Judge A. Joe Fish was less sympathetic to the tolling agency, saying the toll road fee scheme "may not have complied with the Texas statute" and "may not have been the best or wisest business policy." But, at the same time, the agency did not violate due process.
Under the deference given to the decisions of a government agency, there was no way that the motorists could make their case that they were deprived of due process, the three-judge panel concluded. They should, instead, take their complaint to the state legislature.
"There are usually imperfections in new policies," Judge Costa observed for the appellate court. "The amount of the fee may have been one. Indeed, public disapproval with the fees led to passage of a new state law limiting the amount of administrative fees the authority could levy (notably to the $25 challenged here). The political process may continue to fine tune toll collection, but that is not the Due Process Clause's role to play."
A copy of the ruling is available in a 270k PDF file at the source link below.