TAMPA — A limousine company and two limousine customers won the first round in their lawsuit challenging a $50 minimum fare rule set by the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission.
Circuit Judge Charles E. Bergmann denied a motion Monday by county lawyers to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Thomas Halsnik, owner of Black Pearl Limousines, and limousine customers Kenrick Gleckler and Daniel Faubion.
The three men claim the minimum $50 limousine fare violates their due process rights under Florida’s Constitution and was put in place to protect established taxi and limousine companies. They also claim the fare rule restricts competition among limousines, taxi cabs and luxury limousines.
The three plaintiffs are represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm known for representing small business people who feel victimized by intrusive government regulations.
Justin Pearson, a lawyer with institute, argued that regulated fares must serve a greater public or government interest to counter the negative effect of restricting customers’ right to bargain for lower prices. Pearson said after the hearing that the $50 fare serves no public interest but to “protect entrenched interests” such as existing taxi and limousine companies.
“The customer doesn’t need protection from lower prices,” Pearson said.
County Managing Attorney Rob Brazel, in arguing for dismissal, said the transportation commission was created by the Legislature to regulate fares for limousines, taxis and other vehicles for hire. Those regulations, Brazel said, do not deny a customer his choice in the marketplace because he can choose to take a cab instead of a limousine.
“If you want to spend $50 on a limousine, you’re welcome to do that,” Brazel said. “If you don’t want to spend it, do something else.”
Using a hypothetical situation – a short vehicle trip from the George C. Edgecomb Courthouse downtown to Channelside – Brazel tried to demonstrate why the minimum fare rule for limousines is needed.
“(If) we found ourselves in a situation where a cab could cost the same as a limousine, we might not ever choose the cab,” Brazel said. “There wouldn’t be any reason to if they cost the same.”
Brazel also said the plaintiffs did not exhaust their administrative remedies before filing the lawsuit by asking the transportation commission for a variance from the $50 minimum fare.
Pearson countered that the two customers have no right to seek a variance because they are not a business regulated by the transportation commission. The plaintiffs also claim they would not qualify under the PTC’s variance rule which requires some kind of “substantial hardship” that would make it unfair or especially burdensome for them to follow the minimum fare rule.
Both sides in the case said they will file motions for summary judgment, meaning they want the judge to decide the case in their favor based on the law. Before that happens, however, there will be months of discovery, a process in which both sides trade information and documents.
The Public Transportation Commission was created by the Legislature in 1976 to regulate ambulances, taxis, wreckers and limousines. Defenders of the agency said it ensures vehicles are safe and drivers are trustworthy.
But in recent years, the commission has been rocked by scandals. Two Hillsborough County legislators, saying the agency stifles competition, filed bills in October that would have let voters decide whether to abolish the agency. The bills were voted down, however, at a Dec. 2 meeting of the full county legislative delegation.