Armenian-American taxi drivers are suing City Hall for discrimination.

(photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — Santa Monica officials are free to set up the taxi cab franchise system the City Council adopted last month despite a pending claim the city discriminated against Armenian-Americans when it selected franchisees, a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge ruled Wednesday morning.

The ruling denied a request for a preliminary injunction against the new regulatory system by a consortium of Armenian-American taxi cab drivers that has alleged City Hall officials discriminated against its members. Central to the plaintiffs’ claim is that all five of the Armenian-American-owned cab companies that applied for a franchise were rejected. (A total of 13 companies applied, and five were granted franchises.)

Santa Monica officials have denied any discrimination took place.

On Wednesday, Deputy City Attorney Tony Serritella called the decision by Judge James C. Chalfant the “correct ruling.”

Don Burris, an attorney for Metro Cab, which received a franchise from City Hall, also applauded the ruling, saying his client was “very grateful.”

In his five-page order, Chalfant determined the plaintiffs lacked standing to seek injunctive relief and had submitted insufficient evidence.

“The claims are also unsupported by admissible evidence and are at least in part legally infirm,” he wrote, noting that the plaintiffs are required to show “intentional discrimination” to prove their civil rights claim and had so far failed to do so.

While the ruling means City Hall will be allowed to begin enforcing the new franchise system, the case will proceed and could eventually end up in front of a jury.

Attorneys with Geragos & Geragos who are representing the plaintiffs, organized as the Taxi Drivers’ Association of Santa Monica, could not be reached on Wednesday.

The franchise system was adopted to replace Santa Monica’s open-entry system. It cut the number of cabs allowed to pick up fares in the city by more than 150 and barred all but five cab companies from doing business in Santa Monica. City records showed 44 cab companies were licensed to operate in town at the time the franchises were awarded.

The companies that were awarded franchises were picked by a City Hall committee and approved by the City Council in December.

City Hall said it evaluated applicants based on a set of criteria including financial viability, quality of fleet and environmental friendliness.

In addition to alleging racial discrimination, the plaintiffs argued City Hall had violated due process by making decisions “behind closed doors” and failing to disclose the system it was using to rate applicants beforehand.

Serritella said City Hall is confident in its legal position.

“We believe that there’s no basis in fact or law for their allegations,” he said. “We think that the franchise process was fair and that the city acted lawfully in awarding the franchises as it did.”

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