PORTLAND, Maine — A local taxi cab driver is now suing the city of Portland in federal court because he contends the city’s system of permitting cabs is discriminatory against him and other white drivers.
Paul McDonough’s lawsuit, which was moved from Superior Court to U.S. District Court late last week, argues the city violated the state’s Human Rights Act by perpetuating a system in which only Somali and Iranian taxi drivers can secure potentially lucrative permits to serve airport passengers.
“I’m sure there are people in the community who would say Paul’s lawsuit is politically undesirable,” said McDonough’s attorney, David Turesky. “The problem is, we also have a Constitution, and you can’t discriminate.”
The city has argued that its system for distributing the permits was not based on the applicants’ nationalities or races, and that it was purely “happenstance” that no whites were in positions to receive them.
The Maine Human Rights Commission dismissed McDonough’s complaint last year “due to lack of reasonable grounds to believe that unlawful discrimination had occurred,” city attorneys wrote in a court filing.
Only drivers with so-called “non-reserved” jetport permits are allowed to service the Portland International Jetport without prearranged reservations. In 2013, the city reduced the number of those permits from 50 to 45 and implemented a lottery system among existing permit holders to determine who would receive the coveted slots.
Those drivers — all of whom are either Somali or Iranian, McDonough argues — have then since been grandfathered into the system, leaving no room for McDonough or any other new drivers to apply.
McDonough, a South Portland resident, alleges in his lawsuit that he sought to enter the lottery for one of the 45 permits in 2013, but wasn’t allowed because he didn’t have an existing permit at the time.
“They have a closed system — they closed it, and they closed it after they created a discriminatory system,” Turesky said. “The system on its base has a disparate impact by not allowing any white folks to get in.”
Portland city officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but in previous Superior Court filings, city attorneys denied any allegations of discrimination based on race or nationality.
Preti Flaherty attorney Sigmund Schutz is representing the Airport Taxi Group, a coalition of current non-reserved jetport permit holders. His group filed a motion to intervene in the case at the Superior Court level, and argued McDonough failed to prove the city used race or nationality as a criteria in determining who could get the non-reserved permits.
“[McDonough] alleges that all of the current non-reserved airport access permit holders are Somali or Iranian, but does not allege that any of the non-reserved permits were originally granted to any of the current permit holders because of their color, race, ethnicity, or any other protected characteristic,” Schutz wrote in a previous Superior Court filing.
Schutz also argued the city’s tax permitting system does not fall under the definition of a “public accommodation” as protected under the Maine Human Rights Act.
McDonough’s lawsuit is not the first time the city’s airport taxi permitting has come under legal fire.
In 2011, it was Schutz and a group of Somali immigrant taxi drivers seeking a court order to prevent the city from implementing a policy change blocking their local representatives from using power of attorney privileges to renew permits.
Schutz argued at the time the policy change, which was later rescinded by the city, would have forced immigrant drivers to reapply for their annual permits in person, creating a hardship on those who frequently left the country to tend to family matters and left their permitting affairs in the hands of local attorneys.