Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Closed DC Towing Company Sues District For $10 Million

Here's the Washington Examiner story:

By: Michael Neibauer
Examiner Staff Writer
August 6, 2009

A D.C. towing operator whose business was shut down in 2007 for flouting city towing laws is suing the government for $10 million, saying the District had no authority to revoke his license.

James W. Gee, owner of Youngin's Towing and Auto Body, may have been one of the more despised businessmen in the District until the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs closed his Montana Avenue Northeast business down.

He was accused of, and fined for, charging exorbitant rates, towing with little justification and without notifying the city, requiring cash-only payments, refusing to turn over a vehicle, failing to provide a printed copy of the "Owner's Bill of Rights," and declining to pay for damages caused by his drivers. Some owners complained that Gee junked their cars before they could retrieve them from his lot.

But none of that matters, Gee says in a lawsuit filed last week in federal court. His suit argues that federal law bars any state from regulating the tow truck industry, with two exceptions -- for safety and the price of a tow not requested by the vehicle's owner. The District, Gee said, violated a "federal pre-emption" and lacked the jurisdiction to close him down.

"Sounds kind of crazy, right?" said Donald Temple, Gee's lawyer. "But that's what the federal law says."

Temple said he "is not defending anybody's bad practices." Rather, he said, the lawsuit tackles "more of a legal if not constitutional question." By squashing his business license, the city was guilty of "unconstitutional seizure," and for that Gee is asking $10 million.

"I was treated rotten," Gee said. "I was a hard-core businessman. I did nothing wrong."

DCRA disagreed. In October 2007, when she announced that Youngin's had been shut down and fined $1,500, agency Director Linda Argo described the business as one that "preyed on vulnerable vehicle owners." The D.C. Court of Appeals affirmed DCRA's action this year.

"One of the things we do in this administration is we take action when action is required and we're not afraid to do it," Attorney General Peter Nickles said Tuesday.

As for Gee's federal pre-emption argument, Nickles said it was "ridiculous" given that "towing is inherently a local function."

Youngin's grossed more than $1 million in its last year of operation, according to the lawsuit.

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