The taxi lurched away from the curb in Midtown Manhattan, leaving behind a black family of three who had flagged it down on their way to a birthday dinner 10 blocks away. The driver, Baqir Raza, told them he had to go off duty to use the bathroom, the family said, and then picked up two white women nearby and drove away.
“Are you kidding me?” the mother, Cynthia Jordan, screamed at Mr. Raza, according to her testimony. “I’m going to report you,” she added.
Such accusations are not uncommon on New York City streets, but none may have landed with the financial blow and sweeping finding of human rights violations that this one did. In a ruling that experts say is a significant shift in the way the city responds to charges of racism against cabdrivers, an administrative law judge recommended $25,000 in fines and damages against Mr. Raza last week. The city’s Commission on Human Rights will make a final determination.
The judge, Raymond E. Kramer, ruled that Mr. Raza “refused to transport Ms. Jordan and her daughters on the basis of their race and color” during the episode in 2013, violating a section of city human rights law that protects equal access to public accommodations.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Mr. Raza denied having refused Ms. Jordan’s fare, saying her family and the white women tried to hail the cab at the same time and that the white women had climbed in first. He cast the decision, which came after prosecutors from the Human Rights Commission filed a case on Ms. Jordan’s behalf, as an example of regulatory overreach that stood to impoverish cabdrivers.
“I was supposed to be dealing only with T.L.C.,” Mr. Raza said, referring to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which fined him $200 in 2013 for violating its rules in the case. “Why does it go to human rights? There is nothing fair in this case.”
He said he did not have a lawyer during the proceedings, and did not appear at the trial because a Human Rights Commission lawyer had already told him she did not believe his story.
The ruling exposed a disparity in the potential penalties wielded by the rights commission and the taxi commission, whose fines are generally limited to several hundred dollars. The judge’s decision was possible only because Ms. Jordan made the less common decision to pursue the human rights claim after filing a complaint with the taxi commission.
“It just validates some stuff for me,” Ms. Jordan, 57, a vice president at a stock transfer company, said on Thursday. “I’m a lifetime New Yorker, and taxi cabs riding by you becomes part of your life, just as a black person here.”
Referring to her daughter, who was 16 at the time, she said, “I don’t want my daughter to think people can just do to you with impunity whatever they want to do.”
Daniel Ackman, a lawyer who has sued the taxi commission in the past for violating cabdrivers’ rights but is not involved in this case, said he could not recall a similar penalty in such a case.
“I gather the city wants to make a point,” he said in an email, noting the coverage the decision was receiving. “But there are laws. Something is wrong with this picture.”
A spokeswoman for the Human Rights Commission said the case was part of a broad effort to root out discrimination, and that the group would work with cabdrivers to ensure that all New Yorkers are “treated with dignity and respect.”
The commission has filed five complaints related to taxi service in the last two and a half years. In March, an administrative law judge leveled $15,000 in fines and damages against a taxi driver who told two female passengers to stop kissing or get out of the cab, and then shouted epithets at them.
Ms. Jordan’s older daughter, Chiley Holder, who worked at the time as a 311 call center representative, said she urged her mother to take their case to the Human Rights Commission. Ms. Jordan told the agency of her attempt, on a Saturday evening, to catch a cab from 35th Street and Seventh Avenue to her brother-in-law’s nearby birthday dinner.
She said Mr. Raza pulled over to drop off a passenger, but locked the doors when she and her daughters tried to get in. As they looked for another taxi, she said, they watched Mr. Raza stop about 25 feet down the block and pick up two white women. Judge Kramer said the electronic trip log corroborated the family’s account, showing that Mr. Raza stopped twice within a two-minute span, and faulted him for not appearing at the trial.
But Mr. Raza, who is from Pakistan and had not previously been accused of discrimination, said both Ms. Jordan’s family and the white women were standing down the block from where he dropped his passenger off. The women, who jumped in first, he said, urged him to drive off as Ms. Jordan shouted.
Ms. Jordan was awarded $10,000 in damages because she “suffered mental anguish” as a result of the discriminatory act, Mr. Kramer wrote. Mr. Raza was also assessed a $15,000 civil penalty.Continue reading the main story