CLASS ACTION SUIT FILED AGAINST CITY
In a virtually unprecedented move, Santa Monica attorney Stanley Epstein spoke briefly to the City Council Tuesday night before it went into closed session about item 1-C “Existing Litigation” brought by Epstein and his wife against the City and others for violating the California Vehicle Code laws regarding parking tickets.
Epstein’s tone was brisk; his message clear: he had tried since mid-February to resolve the case without resorting to litigation. He had met with City officials, sent countless letters and emails, but had been rebuffed at every turn, and left with no choice but filing a class action suit, which would cost the City a great deal of money in lawyers’ fees.
No action was taken on 1-C in the closed session.
Parking tickets are one of the petty annoyances of modern life. Nobody likes them, but, after some grumbling and grousing, most people pay them, and get on with their lives.
But when Epstein’s wife, Harriet Epstein, was given a ticket for parking in a space reserved exclusively for Euclid Park visitors between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., she contested it, as she didn’t believe she was in violation. Though she didn’t know it at the time, that was the genesis of the lawsuit.
Following California Vehicle Code (CVC), Section 40215, “Contesting Parking Violation Procedure,” Epstein wrote to the Parking Violations Bureau (PVB), stated the reasons that the citation was invalid and asked for its dismissal. Her letter reported that the officer had written “S.C.V.” on the ticket, but did not state what it meant. Further, Epstein parked at 2 p.m. and was issued the ticket at 2:05 p.m., but unless the officer followed her around for the next 55 minutes, which she didn’t, she had no way of knowing whether Mrs. Epstein had spent time in the park.
Her letter was reviewed by a Santa Monica Police Department Traffic Services Officer and sent on to the Parking Violations Bureau, a sub-contractor of ACS State and Local Solutions, a Xerox subsidiary that manages parking ticket paperwork and other administrative services for Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Culver City and West Hollywood (“Westside Cities”) and many other cities in this country and abroad.
A few days later, Epstein received a form letter (unsigned) from PVB that said simply, “the citation is valid,” thus violating CVC 40215, which states that the ”initial review notification” must “include a reason for the denial.”
Epstein and her husband, Stanley, an attorney, went to the Santa Monica Police Department headquarters to report that the PVB reply neither complied with CVC requirements nor stated the bases for the denial of
of Epstein’s claim.. They were told by an SMPD lieutenant that the “denial notification was appropriate,” though it gave no reason for the denial, but merely confirmed the citation’s alleged validity.
Still following the Vehicle Code rules, Mrs. Epstein paid the $64 fine and requested a hearing.
“Parking citation hearing examiner services” are provided by ACS and overseen by a division of the City Finance Department. Hearing examiner Sheri Ross has a two-year contract with the City to adjudicate
parking violation appeals. .
The Epsteins appeared before Ross, challenged the validity of the original citation, pointed out that the PVB notification failed to cite a reason for denying the complaint, as required by CVC 40215, and asked that the case be dismissed.
Ross said she would review the statute, analyze the arguments and make her decision. Two days later, another unsigned notification form arrived from PVB. Like the previous notification, it simply said, “the citation is valid.”
CVC statute 40215© (6) requires the examiner to provide the basis for his/her decision to the appellant: “The examiner’s decision following the administrative hearing may be personally delivered to the person by the examiner or sent by first-class mail, and, if the notice (citation) is not canceled, include a written reason for that denial.”
As unanswered questions and apparent violations of the California Vehicle Code accumulated, Stanley Epstein discussed them with both the Finance Department, which oversees the adjudication of citation appeals, and the City Attorney’s office, which is responsible for reviewing all documents, including notification letters sent to parking citation appellants.
He also talked with the regional director of operations for ACS/PVB who told him that the City was notified of changes in the California Vehicle Code that became effective on January1, 2009, but the City did not authorize ACS/PVB to change the notification letters.
Since the state’s Vehicle Code requires that motorists who appeal parking citations be informed of the bases for the City’s denial of such appeals, and Epstein was twice told that the citation was valid, but was not told why it was valid, or given “a written reason for the denial,” the City’s parking citation appeals process was in violation of the state’s Vehicle Code.
The Epsteins called for a full and impartial review to ascertain whether the City and its contractors are and/or have violated state statutes since January 1, 2009, asked that any investigation include the hearing examiner, who is a licensed California attorney, to ascertain whether ticketed motorists’ appeals followed the procedures prescribed by law, and further asked that all notices and procedures be brought into
into compliance with state statutes.
If appellants were improperly noticed, their appeals denied without explanation, original citations upheld simply because they were “valid,” and fines collected by the City, the Epsteins believed the tickets should be dismissed, and the fines and bail money, if any, refunded, as they were collected in violation of state statute. According to their estimates, the money the City has collected illegally could total hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Don Patterson, the City’s Finance Department official who oversees ACS/PVB, said in an email to the Epsteins: “These concerns were reviewed with the City Attorney’s Office, and our current administrative hearing processes and notices meet the minimum requirements of applicable state law…We have been in the process of reviewing and updating various parking-related notices over the past several months … .”
On Monday, May 9, Epstein e-mailed the members of the City Council: “Today’s Bill Bauer column in the ‘Daily Press’ accurately details the actions by the city and ACS my wife and I encountered in contesting a parking citation. City staff will undoubtedly defend its procedures so that it can continue illegally to collect fines from the public. Based on what the City Attorney’s office told Don Patterson, here’s my analysis of why its opinion is totally wrong.
“STATEMENT by attorney Stanley H. Epstein
“The pathetic attempt by City lawyers (in an ‘opinion’ not one word of which has been provided to the public or media) is a bad faith effort to support their advice in 2008 which resulted in daily conduct by the City and its Processing Agency that violates California law and has cost motorists millions in fines that should not have been paid to Santa Monica.
“1. Language of Law: Section 40215 of the state’s Vehicle Code sets up a procedure for contesting parking citations. The motorist first communicates reason(s) why the citation should be dismissed. Under the amendments to the law effective 1/1/09, the City (through its Agent) must do one of two things: cancel the citation or if that’s denied ‘include a reason for that denial.’ This is called the ‘initial review.’ The motorist then can appeal to an independent hearing examiner and following that hearing, the new provision again allows only the same two options, specifically requiring the notice to ‘include a written reason for that denial.’ The City chose to continue sending two (form) notices, neither of which contains the necessary reason for denial of dismissal. They simply say that the citation is not invalidated, which is a conclusion, not a reason.
“2. Intent of Law: Lawyers and judges regularly seek to determine what was in the minds of legislators. Here that exercise is fatal to [City Attorney] Mr. Seltzer’s position. The statute contemplates that City expenditures will be reduced by not requiring a City employee (such as the citing officer) to attend or testify before the examiner or on any appeal to the court. Therefore the City’s position has to be clear in its documented responses to both of those bodies. Consequently, the statute specifically mandates a reason for a denial so the examiner and the judge can carefully evaluate that reason in the case through the documents and testimony by the motorist. Simply saying ‘the citation is valid,’ as the City does twice, gives the trier of fact no information as to what the City is saying in response to the particular claims of the motorist in each individual case. Makes total sense. Furthermore, the motorist is assisted in deciding whether to appeal when the City provides a specific reason countering her statements.
“In conclusion, the City Manager and Finance and Police Departments should have the courage now to discard the lawyers’ unsubstantiated ‘opinion’ which seeks to cover up their original mistake in 2008 and prevent motorists from being reimbursed. To quote from VC Section 40215: ‘The hearing shall provide an independent, objective, fair, and impartial review of contested parking violations.’ The City should guarantee no less.”
None of the Council members responded to Epstein’s statement.
The Epsteins both filed suit in Superior Court, as Mrs. Epstein received the Citation and Mr. Epstein owns the car. The suit asked that the City be required to abide by the state law and either respond to the Epsteins’ request that it state the bases for the citation or dismiss it, and refund her $64 payment.
But when the Epsteins’ research showed that an estimated 16,000 motorists had apparently received the same alleged illegal treatment, they withdrew their suit, and filed a class action suit, and asked for “a writ of mandate,” which would require the City abide by state law and settle with all the people who had been denied due process.
On May 30, the City issued a press release headlined “City Continues Implementation of Parking System Improvements”
The release said, “Santa Monica, California – The City of Santa Monica’s Finance and Police Departments have been working on a year-long effort to review and improve parking citation and permit systems.
“Recent resident inquiry and press attention has focused on notices to people who contest their parking citations during the appeal process. As a result, the City has reviewed the level of information provided in letters that are sent to the recipient notifying them of the decision. Although the letters provide the minimum information required by law, the City believes that providing additional details with these letters would improve customer service. The notifications sent by the City during the parking citation appeal process now reflect this additional information. The final stage of the appeal process, which is to the Superior Court, is not affected by this change in procedure. Any person who recently appealed a parking citation to the City, and would like additional details regarding why a citation was upheld during the appeal process, can e-mail their request with the citation number to firstname.lastname@example.org, and they will receive a response within 10 business days.
“This is the latest in a series of customer service improvements that has occurred over the last year which includes revised parking permit renewals; the ability to renew parking permits online at www.smgov.net/parking; barcoding of permits to allow for efficient verification of permits in the field; and installation of credit-card enabled meters in the public lots along Main St.
“Future planned improvements include continued review of letters and notices to make them more customer-friendly; installation of on-street credit card enabled parking meters; and providing the ability for residents to print one day guest parking permits for preferential parking areas.”
The Epsteins disagree with the City’s assertion that the letters “provide the minimum information required by law,” noting that “the ticket is valid,” the City’s only response to both of the Epsteins’ requests for the bases of the citation, ignores both her request and the law.
A class action complaint asking for a writ of mandate and declaratory relief was filed by attorney Eric Benink in Los Angeles Superior Court on June 6. It alleges, among other things, that “In an effort to maximize revenue and reduce costs, respondents’ practice has been to provide form letters rather than provide individual explanations or reasons as required under law.”
As of the City Council meeting Tuesday night, the City has not responded.