Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wednesday's Weird But True Legal Cases - Vol LIII

This week's weird (but true) legal case asks the question - can a highway authority charge a higher toll to non residents then residents? Don't assume that you know the right answer.

In Selevan v. New York Thruway Authority, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit considered the appeal of decision from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York dismissing a lawsuit by two Nassau County, New York residents challenging the New York Thruway Authority policy that charges residents of Grand Island less than others.

As explained by the Circuit:
The Grand Island Bridges (jointly, “Grand Island Bridge” or “the Bridge”), maintained and operated by NYTA, comprise a portion of Interstate-190 that spans Grand Island, New York, a municipality situated in the Niagara River approximately halfway between Niagara Falls, New York and Buffalo, New York. Plaintiffs' amended complaint alleges that, pursuant to NYTA policy, each vehicle crossing the Bridge-except those driven by residents of Grand Island-must pay a toll of 75 cents. Residents of Grand Island, who may establish their status with, among other things, vehicle registration documents, are entitled to pay as little as 9 cents per trip-that is, 66 cents less per trip than non-residents of Grand Island.
On appeal to the Second Circuit, the Thruway Authority argued as they had in the court below that "plaintiffs have not suffered injury-in-fact because “a discount afforded to differently-situated individuals does not necessarily result in a palpable ‘injury’ to those not afforded the discount.” This was rejected by the Circuit noting that the District Court had properly turned that argument aside since the injury is"the burden of paying higher toll rates than Grand Island residents and the denial of toll discounts based on their residency status."

In ruling that the Plaintiffs had a cognizable claim under the Commerce Clause the Circuit rejected the lower court's characterization of the complaint, stating:
According to the District Court, “[t]he true gravamen of plaintiffs' complaint is that the Grand Island toll policy discriminates against New York citizens traversing a bridge within the State.” Selevan, 470 F.Supp.2d at 172. We disagree. First, as noted, each plaintiff alleged that he or she paid the Grand Island Bridge toll as part of a trip to another state, where each engaged in shopping and other commercial activities. See J .A. 164-65 (Am.Compl.¶¶ 5-6). Moreover, that plaintiffs may not have crossed into another state immediately upon paying the toll is of no importance; the critical inquiry in our jurisprudence is whether the toll in some way affects interstate commerce.
Importantly, the court also rejected the argument that interstate commerce was not burdened, explaining:
NYTA's argument that “the 75-cent general toll did not impose any cognizable burden on interstate commerce,” Appellee's Br. 24, is foreclosed by the Supreme Court's decision in Oregon Waste Systems, Inc. v. Department of Environmental Quality, 511 U.S. 93, 114 S.Ct. 1345, 128 L.Ed.2d 13 (1994). In that case, the Court rejected the argument that a surcharge of $2.25 per ton of solid waste generated outside of the state was too minimal an amount to be discriminatory under the dormant Commerce Clause. See id. at 100 n. 4. The Court reasoned that “the degree of a differential burden or charge on interstate commerce ‘measures only the extent of the discrimination’ and ‘is of no relevance to the determination whether a State has discriminated against interstate commerce.’ “ Id. (quoting Wyoming v. Oklahoma, 502 U.S. 437, 455, 112 S.Ct. 789, 117 L.Ed.2d 1 (1992)). Here too, the toll differential speaks to the extent of the alleged discrimination, rather than to the presence of a violation. Because this case comes before us following a decision on a motion to dismiss, we need only consider whether the complaint alleges a plausible claim that the regulation violates the Commerce Clause. See, e.g., Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950. Whether the 75-cent toll is actually a burden on interstate commerce is a question left for later proceedings.
We'll have to keep an eye on where this goes now that the case is back in the hands of the District Court.

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