Many of my clients who are outraged at what they perceive as unfair treatment from the Registry of Motor Vehicles ask if they can sue the Registry. In the vast majority of cases the answer to that question is no. The difficulties associated with prevailing in a lawsuit against a state agency such as the Mass. RMV were set forth in a recent decision by the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
In the case of John H. Gass v. Registrar of Motor Vehicles, the Mass. Appeals Court declared that Mr. Gass could not maintain a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Registrar of Motor Vehicles when his license was mistakenly suspended due to “COMP FRAUD LIC/ID.”
Gass’ troubles began when the Registry’s facial recognition system identified him as potentially having two driver’s licenses. The Registry purchased the system from L1 Identity Solutions with anti-terrorism grant funding from the US Department of Homeland Security. On April 1, 2011, the Registry indefinitely suspended Gass’ license for “COMP FRAUD LIC/ID.” When this happens, the driver can only clear the suspension by attending a hearing at the Registry’s Special Investigation Unit, which is located at 10 Park Plaza in Boston.
When Gass received the suspension notice, he promptly contacted the RMV License Fraud Unit. He was told that he could have a hearing and he was instructed to bring acceptable proof of his identity to the false license hearing. The RMV officials refused to provide him further information regarding the grounds of the revocation. This is consistent with the Registry’s practice not to discuss the details of license fraud cases over the telephone.
Gass attended a Registry hearing and, just 10 days after revoking his license, when Gass he satisfied the Registry Hearings Officer as to his true identity and that no license fraud occurred, the Registry immediately reinstated his license.
Unsatisfied with the reinstatement of his license, Gass sued the Registrar of Motor Vehicles in Suffolk Superior Court. After a hearing, now retired Superior Court Justice Thomas Connolly dismissed the lawsuit against the Registry on legal grounds. Gass appealed the dismissal and the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld the decision of the Suffolk Superior Court. In ruling in favor of the Registry, the Appeals Court noted that “[t]here can be no reasonable dispute that—as a general matter—the RMV has authority to suspend licenses based on suspected identity fraud,” and “absent its consent, a State or State agency cannot be sued for damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” The Court further noted that, “the RMV made reasonable efforts to provide him a hearing prior to the effective date of the revocation.” This case illustrates that it may not be as easy as you think to sue the Registry of Motor Vehicles.