After a city board refuses to lift a probation, a national nonprofit law group turns to the courts to aid the limo company.
By BILL VARIAN
Published December 11, 2003
TAMPA - One of the nation's largest conservative public interest law firms has come to the defense of a Hillsborough limousine company owner accused of charging his fares too little.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law group based in California, says the county agency that regulates cars for hire is trampling Daniel Steiner's constitutional rights by imposing unfair regulations on him that make it impossible for him to make a living.
Steiner has been on six months' probation since Oct. 8, when the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission ruled that he was charging too little for limousine rides.
The agency ordered him to stop charging his customers less than the required minimum $40 each for rides. PTC regulators said his business threatened the cabbie industry by undercutting the mileage-based fares they must charge.
A lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation - sometimes described as the ACLU of the right - appeared before the PTC Wednesday seeking to have Steiner's punitive probation lifted.
The PTC denied the request in a 4-0 vote.
"This had been going on for a long time. He had been warned," said Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Frank, who sits on the PTC and made the motion to maintain probation. "Steiner's saying they can document that staff is wrong. If that's the case, then we can review it at that point."
Alicia Rause, a Pacific foundation lawyer based in Coral Gables, accused the commission of concocting a bogus interpretation of its own rules, and threatening to put Steiner out of business to benefit cab companies.
The group already has appealed Steiner's probation to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in a lawsuit filed Nov. 10.
"We're not saying they don't have the right to regulate," Rause said. "But not to the point where he no longer has the right to work."
Steiner owns a small fleet of Lincoln Town Cars he and his drivers use to ferry promgoers, executives heading to the airport and, notably, the elderly and feeble to clinics. The clinic business is his bread and butter and the source of the conflict.
The clinics hire his DSL Transport Service and he charges them on a monthly or sometimes biweekly basis to shuttle patients for checkups and other nonemergency visits.
Business was good, and Steiner was actually seeking to double his fleet to 10 vehicles when the PTC placed him on probation instead. The board tabled his expansion request.
The PTC says Steiner must charge at least $40 per patient, per trip, regardless of how short the distance or time. Steiner and his lawyers note correctly that the PTC rules say only that he must charge a minimum of $40 per hour, not per trip.
If you add up all of the time his drivers spend on the road, he says he is charging at least $40 an hour under his contracts with the clinics. And the PTC rules also expressly allow him to bill monthly.
"He actually wants to do a car service," PTC executive director Gregory Cox countered to commissioners Wednesday. "We don't have a category (of cars for hire) like that."
Pacific Legal Foundation got involved when one of its lawyers, Timothy Sandefur, read a St. Petersburg Times story that had been posted on a Web site called www.obscurestore.com a collection of quirky news stories assembled daily. He contacted Steiner's previous attorney and learned that he didn't have the money to pursue a legal fight.
Pacific, which operates through donations, is representing him for free.
In a background paper prepared on the case, Sandefur notes that metropolitan areas nationally consistently impose onerous regulations on people who drive cars for hire. The result is that entrepreneurs like Steiner, an immigrant from Brazil, are denied the common law right to earn a living.
"I think it's important to people to know because these types of regulations tend to burden the immigrant or lower class wage earner," Sandefur said. "People who are wealthier or better off tend to be able to influence legislators to write laws that benefit their interests."
Pacific Legal describes itself as the oldest and largest public interest law firm dedicated to preserving individual and economic liberties, and limited government.
It has won several high-profile cases in California, including decisions upholding a ballot initiative ending state aid to illegal immigrants, banning affirmative action and replacing bilingual education with immersion in English, according to a 1999 story in the Washington Post.
It also has been active in the property rights arena, helping limit government's ability to regulate or expropriate private property.
- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.