By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge in New York said it is an open question whether the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission treats drivers fairly in hearings over whether to revoke their licenses.
U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein made the assessment in a 50-page decision on Thursday, in which he reviewed challenges by drivers to TLC practices in revoking licenses because of failed drug tests or some criminal convictions, including misdemeanors.
Stein nonetheless declined to declare the TLC license revocation process unconstitutional.
The 6-1/2-year-old lawsuit by seven former drivers, who seek class action status, claimed the TLC violated their due process rights by taking away their licenses or recommending revocation.
These drivers also complained that pre-revocation hearings to assess their "fitness" are a "sham" because they are handled by administrative law judges appointed by and beholden to the TLC, and don't require the commission to prove what it alleges.
The TLC countered that its procedures are fair, and that the drivers did not overcome a "presumption" that the administrative law judges are honest and have integrity.
In his decision, Stein said a "genuine dispute" exists as to the judges' impartiality, including over whether supervisors pressure them to rule against drivers.
He pointed to one judge's testimony that supervisors "would be very upset" if he issued another pro-driver ruling, although that judge never explained how he might be punished, if at all.
"Although plaintiffs have proffered considerable evidence of bias, the dispute remains in light of the presumption of honesty and defendants' countervailing evidence," he wrote. "Significant evidence" supports both sides' views, he said.
Stein also issued mixed rulings on whether the seven named plaintiffs were denied due process in their individual cases.
The lawsuit seeks a halt to license revocations solely on the basis of failed drug tests or criminal convictions, a requirement that hearings be fair, and the reinstatement of illegally revoked licenses.
The New York City Law Department was not immediately available for comment. Lawyers for the plaintiffs had no immediate comment or were not immediately available.
The case is Rothenberg et al v. Daus et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 08-00567.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Sandra Maler)