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Former driver and TriMet watchdog files lawsuit against agency

Allen MarguliesOne of TriMet’s most relentless critics has a $20 million bone to pick with the Portland transit agency.

Al Margulies, a recently retired bus operator and longtime publisher of Rantings of a TriMet Bus Driver, stands to become the lead plaintiff in a threatened class-action lawsuit against TriMet, on behalf of hundreds of TriMet operators who’ve had to work longer than expected because of on-the-job transit delays.

The lawsuit puts the potential cost to TriMet at $10 million each for two sets of state and federal claims, though that’s basically a starting point for legal wrangling and negotiation.

By comparison, last year’s fare hikes and service cuts, including the elimination of Fareless Square, saved TriMet $14 million annually. TriMet’s annual operating budget, which doesn’t include rail construction, is $458 million.

At issue is TriMet’s practice of paying operators whose split shifts require travel from the end of one run to the start of another, or operators who finish their shifts away from their personal vehicle. According to the lawsuit, TriMet calculates paychecks for the related travel time by assuming that trains and buses finish their routes on time. They often don’t.

Drivers can ask TriMet to correct such errors, but the lawsuit claims that this process is deliberately onerous.

TriMet hasn’t yet been served with papers in the potential case. Spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said Friday that the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation, except to confirm that it hadn’t received the lawsuit yet. If TriMet is served, it will have 30 days to begin its response.

Margulies’ lawsuit is modeled on an apparently successful case in Oakland, in which AC Transit seems likely to pay damages or a settlement to workers who faced a similar situation for on-the-job travel.

Two other activist TriMet operators, Chris Day and Steve Fung, joined Margulies as initial plaintiffs in the class action. Their representative, Portland-based attorney Paul Breed, said Friday that he expects more operators to sign on as plaintiffs. Potential plaintiffs can join the case at any point, he said; once they do so, they freeze the federal statute of limitations on the matter, potentially increasing the size of their own award.

Margulies uncharacteristically but politely referred questions to his lawyers, who also declined to characterize the case until it develops further.

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