ROCKVILLE – The Montgomery County Sentinel has learned two local attorneys have filed a putative class action lawsuit against the Motor Vehicle Administration.
The attorneys claim the MVA has been overcharging drivers for suspended license hearings for almost 20 years.
Court watchers say the case could have serious monetary implications for the state.
According to the lawsuit, local attorneys David Schiller and Paul Howard Kent along with Washington, D.C attorney Tracy D. Rezvani are representing two Maryland residents and a Virginia resident in Montgomery County Circuit Court on behalf of themselves and all others who have been subject to paying an administrative hearing fee of $150 when the fee should have only been $15.
The attorneys argue The Code of Maryland Regulations states that the Office of Administrative Hearing (OAH), the body of government responsible for the suspended license hearings, shall “consider a request for a hearing from a party valid only when accompanied by a payment of a $15 filing fee.”
But according to the Advice of Rights given to a person accused of a DUI at the time of his/her arrest by the arresting officer, the request for a hearing will be invalid “if submitted without the required $150 filing fee (or applicable waiver).”
The request must be made within 10 days of the date of the Order of Suspension, according to the article, to ensure the accused person’s privilege to drive is not suspended prior to his/her hearing.
“The MVA does not follow its own regulations. That’s ridiculous, it is ridiculous,” Kent said. “And the reason they don’t is because they can get away with it and to me it’s bullying behavior.”
But according to the Attorney General’s office, the reason they can do it is because it is perfectly legal.
“Based upon applicable statutes and a determination by the Chief Administrative Law Judge of the Office of Administrative Hearings, the state contends that the $150 fee is authorized,” said David Nitkin, director of communications and policy advisor for the Office of the Maryland Attorney General.
Nitkin declined to comment further because of the ongoing litigation.
Schiller and Kent believe the statute the state may be referencing is mentioned in the lawsuit as “the only reference to a $150 filing fee found in Article 16-204 of the State Government Article which permits the OAH to asses a fee of up to $150 for an appeal of a driver’s license suspension.”
According to Schiller and Kent, accused DUI drivers have an option to request a hearing after they have been arrested.
Schiller and Kent claim this hearing is not an “appeal hearing” but rather “an initial hearing,” meaning their clients and any others who have paid the $150 fee have been charged $135 more than the law allows.
The Montgomery County lawyers also claim because the MVA has unlawfully charged such a high rate, the administration has created “a burden of access on the courts.”
“As the fees get higher, fewer people are going to request hearings because they don’t have the money, and if you don’t request a hearing you get suspended,” Schiller said.
This “burden” hits especially hard on “good hardworking people,” Kent said, because they are asked to come up with $150 in only 10 days.
“My point is that the $150 within 10 days represents a burden on access, because the state knows a lot of people will not be able to afford that,” Kent said.
Schiller said if the MVA continues to go unchecked they will “continue to raise fees to a point where people can’t afford them.”
The lawsuit seeks to not only recover the plaintiffs’ money, but also require the MVA to change its forms and notices to reflect the correct $15 fee required to obtain an initial hearing; award reasonable attorney fees; award any other relief the court deems proper; determine the lawsuit is maintainable as a class action; certify plaintiffs as class representatives; appoint plaintiffs’ counsel as class counsel; and ensure the MVA could no longer charge more than the $15 fee.
Currently the state has been served with the lawsuit and has 30 days after receiving it to enter its reply, at which point a judge will decide the future of the lawsuit.
Schiller said he’s “very confident” in the claim that the MVA has been overcharging drivers because the evidence against the MVA is “clear, crystal clear.”