Federal Court Upholds Nashville’s $45 Minimum Fare Law, For Now

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · July 18, 2011

Nashville, Tenn.—Late yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee denied an emergency motion filed by three affordable car services that sought to halt enforcement of Nashville’s $45 minimum charge for limousine and sedan service.

After an all-day hearing on Monday, April 2, Judge Kevin H. Sharp issued an 18-page decision in which he expressed skepticism about the usefulness of the law and the Metropolitan Government’s motives for passing it. But he ruled that enforcement may continue because the government “has set forth various possible reasons for enactment of the $45.00 minimum fare requirement, and Plaintiffs have failed to show that every one of those reasons has no rational basis.”

The ruling comes 10 weeks after the Metropolitan Transportation Licensing Commission set plaintiff Metro Livery up in a sting operation, prompting the emergency motion. The $45 minimum fare was not enforced at all for the first 19 months that it was on the books. The first and only time that Nashville enforced the minimum fare was against Metro Livery, in January 2012.

Despite the ruling, the car services’ case will continue to move forward, but they will not be protected from citations and possible revocation of their operating permits while they seek to enforce their constitutional rights.

“I could lose my business,” said Ali Bokhari, the owner of Metro Livery and a plaintiff in the company’s lawsuit against Nashville. “The majority of my customers cannot pay $45 or more for my services,” continued Bokhari, “they have told me they’ll stop using Metro Livery.”

“Judge Sharp emphasized that his ruling is preliminary and that he remains open to ruling for us after the trial,” said Wesley Hottot, an attorney with the Institute for Justice and the lead lawyer in the case against Nashville. “We will ultimately win this case,” continued Hottot, “because the $45 minimum fare does nothing to make your trip in a limo or town car any safer; it was passed into law only because Nashville’s expensive limousine companies wanted to put their affordable competition out of business and the Metro Council agreed to help them. That isn’t just wrong. It’s unconstitutional.”

As Judge Sharp recognized in his ruling, the $45 minimum fare was written by the Tennessee Livery Association—a trade group formed to represent the interests of expensive limousine companies. “[T]he near wholesale use of [the Association]’s draft legislation seems a bit fishy,” wrote Judge Sharp. “But at this point, the process which led to the insertion of the minimum fare provision does not strike the Court with ‘the force of a five-week-old, unrefrigerated dead fish, a level of pungence almost required to invalidate a statute under rational basis review,’” continues the ruling, quoting an earlier case.

“We are staying in this fight,” continued Bokhari. “It is my right to charge my customers as little as I wish; the government can make me keep my vehicles and my drivers safe, but it can’t tell me what to charge.”