Miami-Dade County

Lawsuit reignites Miami-Dade policy fight over Uber, Lyft

Drivers protested Uber’s drop in prices — and local government’s failure to regulate ride-for-hire services — outside Miami-Dade County Hall last month.
Drivers protested Uber’s drop in prices — and local government’s failure to regulate ride-for-hire services — outside Miami-Dade County Hall last month. EL NUEVO HERALD

Paralyzed by how to regulate Uber and Lyft, Miami-Dade County has for more than half a year essentially allowed the illegal ride-for-hire services to exist — under the continued threat of fines and car impoundings — while politicians figure out their next move.

Three taxicab companies and four chauffeur-permit owners have taken matters into their own hands and sued Lyft and Uber, asking a Miami federal court to prohibit the ride-for-hire companies from operating and force them to pay damages for hurting their business.

“We believe in the free-market system. We believe in competition,” Ralph Patino, the attorney who filed the class-action lawsuit late last month, said during a news conference on Tuesday. However, he added: “They have to abide by laws just like all of us.”

In separate statements, competitors Uber and Lyft said they would fight in court, as they have when they have been sued across the globe for similar reasons. A Lyft spokesman called the complaint “without merit.”

Lyft and Uber let passengers hail rides using their cellphones, from independent drivers using their own cars. Cabbies and limo chauffeurs must obtain, among other things, permits and car inspections from the county. Taxi drivers must also own or, more commonly, lease, a medallion — a coveted permit that, up to now, has been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars because there’s a fixed number of them.

The three companies suing Uber and Lyft as part of the lawsuit — Miadeco, B & S Taxi and Checker Cab Operators — are owned in part by Gilberto Hernandez, one of the county’s single largest medallion holders. The four other plaintiffs are Phil Ellis Lowery, Minnie Mae Lowery, Eddielene G. Lowery Brown and Arnett Jr. Lee.

The lawsuit comes as Lyft and Uber have been trying to reignite discussions with the county government about how to write new laws allowing them to operate. The companies see hope because the new commission chairman, Jean Monestime, reorganized a key transit committee last month that had stalled legislation in favor of ride-for-hire services for two years.

“It’s our hope that together we can come up with a long-term solution,” Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett told the Miami Herald.

Playing nice appears to be part of Uber’s revamped political strategy. When the company tried to legally break into Miami-Dade in 2013, it aggressively lobbied the county to eliminate its taxi and limo regulations — an approach that didn’t win Uber any new friends at County Hall. Lyft from the beginning has worked with the government. Both companies are based in San Francisco.

Despite being banned from operating in the county, which only allows regulated for-hire transportation services, Lyft and Uber have proven their staying power — not only here, but across South Florida. Both also operate in Broward and Palm Beach, and they have faced similar legislative battles in both counties. Broward is crafting ride-for-hire rules, but in the meantime, commissioners agreed Tuesday to explicitly ban ride-for-hire services for now. A temporary operating agreement is in the works in Palm Beach.

Uber has also hired a Tallahassee lobbyist to pursue statewide ride-for-hire regulations. The company tried but failed to get such a law passed last year.

The two companies say they have seen significant growth in the South Florida region, but both declined to provide specifics. Uber, which initially only provided its UberX service matching passengers with sedan drivers, has since launched UberXL (for rides from SUV drivers) and UberSelect (for rides from drivers of luxury cars such as BMWs).

“We have hundreds of drivers in the city,” Chelsea Wilson, a Lyft spokeswoman, told the Herald about the company’s Miami-Dade presence. “And it’s not just people in Miami Beach and downtown or Brickell using it. It’s people in Miami Gardens and Kendall.”

While the companies keep growing, Miami-Dade keeps penalizing them. As of two weeks ago, the county had issued 903 tickets to Uber and Lyft cars or their drivers. More cars (483) have been fined than drivers (420) because some drivers have existing county taxi or limousine licenses, according to Joe Mora, the county’s for-hire transportation chief. The car citations have mostly gone to Uber — 445, compared to 38 for Lyft — possibly because Uber appears to have a larger operation.

Only one formal complaint had been filed with the county so far, Mora said, against an Uber driver accused of not returning a brand-new video camera a passenger left in the back seat.

Each violation comes with a $1,010 fine, though some have been challenged. The companies have pledged to cover the costs for their drivers, though both Lyft and Uber declined to say how much they’ve spent. “Thousands of dollars,” said Uber’s Bennett.

Uber has also had to contend with drivers upset by the company’s decision to drop prices by 20 percent in October and again in January, a strategy intended to increase the number of rides during lulls in demand, according to Bennett. Last month, a group of drivers, some of them former cabbies, protested outside County Hall. Uber says it guarantees that drivers’ earnings will remain steady after the cuts, bolstered by more rides.