Judge tosses $100 million suit vs Tollway over 'unconstitutional' collection practices

By Scott Holland | Jul 17, 2015

A federal judge has popped an Ohio man’s $100 million lawsuit against the Illinois Tollway for allegedly violating his constitutional rights through its toll collection process.

U.S. District Judge Manish S. Shah, in a July 15 ruling, deconstructed the arguments of Jeffrey D. Cochran, a lifelong Ohioan who tried to bring a class-action suit against the Illinois Toll Highway Authority and its Board of Directors after incurring $60 in missed toll fines.

Cochran’s troubles began on a December 2013 drive to Chicago to visit family.

During and after that trip, Cochran claimed he incurred $60 in fines because he missed three tolls as he was “unfamiliar with Illinois’s toll highway system, and unable to understand the signs directing him to toll booths.”

Cochran, allegedly ignorant of the law allowing him to pay the $4.50 in missed tolls within a seven-day grace period, failed to pay online or by phone, causing him to be assessed an additional fine of $20 per missed toll.

The court dismissed Cochran’s first amended complaint for failing to state a claim. Shah’s July 15 ruling dismissed the second amended complaint because it “does not plausibly allege a constitutional violation.” Those claims are dismissed with prejudice, though Cochran’s state-law claims are dismissed without prejudice.

Cochran’s car did not have a transponder allowing him to use the tollway’s system for collecting tolls without slowing traffic. While he should have driven through the cash-only lanes, the tollway grants a seven-day grace period for missed tolls. Overhead signs inform drivers of this opportunity. Any tolls unpaid after a week are converted to violations. If a driver gets three violations within two years, the Authority mails a notice of the unpaid tolls plus the $20 fine for each violation.

After receiving his mailed notice, Cochran took legal action. As Shah notes, the notice stipulates drivers cannot argue the violation notice wasn’t mailed sooner, the driver didn’t intend to skip the payment or drive through the wrong lane or blame someone else for driving the car. However, Cochran’s complaint said the Authority violated his constitutional rights to procedural due process and equal protection of the laws.

“Cochran — like all others — was given more process than was required,” Shah wrote. “He was given a grace period for each missed toll, and no fine was assessed until his third violation.”

In Cochran’s complaint, he said the overhead signs that direct cars without transponders to cash lanes or inform about how to pay missed tolls are confusing, claiming the Authority “ignore(d) vast accumulated knowledge about human conditioning gathered through statistical analysis and psychological observation (e.g. Bayesian inference, cognitive evaluation, cognitive dissonance, perspective transformation, social learning and attribution theory).”

Shah was blunt in brushing aside this argument.

“Maybe, maybe not,” the judge wrote. “Either way, the Constitution is not offended.”

Cochran based the equal protection claim on the second grace period given to transponder owners who incur missed toll violations for having outdated payment information. However, Shah noted transponder use is available to anyone and widely encouraged, a rational basis defense since the system has several beneficial purposes.

Cochran alleged the Tollway also violated state law by exceeding its powers, breaching a contract and being unlawfully enriched. But Cochran failed to prove jurisdiction, Shah said.

Further, Shah took issue with Cochran’s request for a nine-figure judgment, noting “although a good faith, uncontested allegation concerning the amount in controversy is generally accepted by courts … it is not obvious that Cochran’s $100,000,000 demand was made in good faith — no rationale is given for that amount, which is enormous compared to his $60 fine.”

Cochran was represented by attorneys George W. Cochran III, of Streetsboro, Ohio, and Thomas C. Cronin and Leland W. Hutchinson, of Cronin & Co., of Chicago.

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