No refunds in fight over parking tickets and Salt Lake City’s electronic kiosks, Utah Supreme Court rules

Paul Fraughton | The Salt Lake Tribune Chad Golsan, of Salt Lake City, goes through the steps to pay for parking at a parking kiosk on Main Street on Wednesday, August 21, 2013. A lawsuit filed against the city claims city code wasn't changed to authorize procedural changes that came with the meters.

The Utah Supreme Court has issued another loss to three drivers in a lengthy fight over parking tickets.

In a 5-0 decision, the justices on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling throwing out a lawsuit by the trio that claimed Salt Lake City was unjustly enriched and violated motorists’ due process rights after it replaced curbside meters with electronic pay stations.

The plaintiffs had asked for refunds of parking fees and fines paid by themselves and others in the proposed class-action suit, which could have involved millions of dollars.

The switch — “from Industrial-era, coin-operated, single-space parking meters (where each parking space had its own meter) to a postindustrial system of multi-space, credit-card-ready parking pay stations,” in the words of Justice Deno Himonas — began in late 2011 and by March 2012, Salt Lake City had replaced all of its 2,100 coin-operated meters with 344 parking kiosks.

But the city did not immediately update its parking ordinance to reflect the change, according to court records. Instead, until mid-2014, city code defined a parking infraction by referring to coin-activated meters.

The three drivers who sued — Timothy Bivens, Anthony Arias and Michelle Reed, who replaced one of the original plaintiffs — all received tickets for failing to pay to park in the two years before the code was changed. They filed suit in June 2014 in 3rd District Court seeking refunds for the money collected under the outdated parking ordinance. The City Council voted on July 15, 2014, to update that law.

The lawsuit alleged the city deprived motorists of due process because the tickets failed to give them adequate notice of the procedures for challenging parking violations and erroneously said they had ten calendar days to schedule a hearing, when in fact they had 20 days. In addition, Salt Lake City had created a quasi-judicial process — hearing officers located in its finance division — that city code did not authorize, the suit said.

Salt Lake City lawyers filed a motion asking for dismissal of the suit, arguing that it was not “inequitable” for the city to keep the parking revenue and that the prior code was adequate to allow for enforcement. They also have argued there was no due process violation because the three plaintiffs had received notice they could have a hearing to fight their tickets.

Third District Judge Robert Faust in July 2015 granted the motion to dismiss and the motorists appealed. The Utah Court of Appeals heard arguments last year but the case was transferred to the Supreme Court before a ruling was issued.

Writing for the court, Himonas said that although the city notices contained misstatements “that trouble us,” they were sufficient to let the drivers know of both their right to challenge their tickets and their opportunity for a hearing.

And based on the decision to uphold the dismissal of the inadequate notice claim, the other claims in the suit, including unjust enrichment, “cannot get off the ground,” Himonas wrote.

According to the suit, the city issued approximately 121,460 parking notices in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, and 143,813 in fiscal 2014.

Parking fees collected were $1,700,848 for fiscal 2012 and $2,889,212 for fiscal 2013, with $3,222,030 in revenue projected for fiscal 2014, the suit says. Parking violation fees collected were $3,374,059 for fiscal 2012 and $3,041,875 for fiscal 2013, and $4,335,000 projected for fiscal year 2014.