Who's behind the wheel?

Taxi permits, which give the holder a nice income, are only for active drivers. So what happens when a permit holder gets disabled?
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In 1997, Dirk, a taxi driver of 20 years, was stabbed in the neck by a hitchhiker he picked up after his last shift. Ten years later, blind and brain damaged because of the loss of blood, he still receives income of roughly $1,800 a month from his taxi medallion.

Under city law, he's supposed to be driving.

Medallions are among the most prized — and disputed — permits in town. The city owns all 1,381 of the medallions, which allow the holders to operate taxis. But under a 1978 law known as Proposition K, only active drivers — later defined as people who put in an annual minimum of 800 hours behind the wheel — are eligible to hold the permits.

The medallion holders have a lucrative deal: when they aren't driving, they can lease out the permits to other drivers. And since a lot of cabs are on the road 24 hours a day 365 days a year, those lease fees can add up.

Not surprisingly, there's been some abuse over the years. You get a permit by putting your name on a list and waiting as long as 15 years. Some people who haven't driven in years — people who don't even live in the area — have risen to the top of the list, seized medallions, and pocketed the cash, hoping nobody would notice.

Recently, though, the city's Taxicab Commission has been cracking down — and that has put people like Dirk in limbo and raised a series of political and legal questions that go to the heart of the city's cab-permit system:

Does a disabled driver have a right to keep his or her medallion? Is it cruel to simply yank the permit — and the income — from somebody who may have been injured in the line of work? Or is allowing nondrivers to keep their medallions unfair to the thousands of working cabbies who are paying $91.50 a shift to lease a permitted cab and waiting in line for a permit to open up?

What right should someone who gets a valuable city permit, at no cost, have to keep using that permit to earn income when he or she no longer meets the permit requirements?

Taxicab Commission executive director Heidi Machen says the answers are straightforward. "Permit holders who are not meeting their requirements are abusing a public permit," she told the Guardian. "Proposition K was never set up as a retirement plan."

Joe Breall and Elliot Myles disagree — and they're taking the issue to court in a case that could have lasting implications for the city's taxicab industry, medallion holders, and other drivers.

The two Bay Area lawyers filed a class action lawsuit against the Taxicab Commission on June 25 on behalf of an estimated 150 disabled drivers who hold taxi medallions in the city. They argue that the driving requirement violates the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

"These are long-term drivers who have a disability that simply does not allow them to drive now," said Breall, who represents National Cab Co.

One of the case's two named plaintiffs, William Slone, is a medallion holder with a lung disease that requires him to be hooked up to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day. The other, Michael Merrithew, has a physical disability so severe that he cannot operate his taxi.

Machen has hired two investigators to crack down on medallion holders who are not fulfilling their requirements — whether a scofflaw is a healthy 30-year-old woman living in Hawaii but reaping her medallion's profits or an elderly man who must use a wheelchair but is still using the medallion as his source of income.

"The ADA does not require a public agency to waive an essential eligibility requirement for a government program or benefit," Machen wrote in a memo dated Feb. 16, 2006.

The Taxicab Commission isn't just yanking permits from anyone who gets hurt.

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