Statewide Towing Ass'n v. City of Lowell

Decision Date27 April 2007
Docket NumberNo. 06-P-857.,06-P-857.
CourtAppeals Court of Massachusetts

Michael P. McGovern, Knoxville, Tennessee (Arthur M. White, Framingham, with him) for the plaintiff.

Christine P. O'Connor, City Solicitor, for the defendant.



The plaintiff, Statewide Towing Association, Inc. (Statewide), filed a complaint against the city of Lowell (city) and certain towing companies, seeking a declaratory judgment, pursuant to G.L. c. 231A, § 1, and injunctive relief, pursuant to G.L. c. 214, § 1. Count I alleges that the towing contracts executed between the city and the defendant towing companies are void because they violate G.L. c. 159B, §§ 6A and 19, and are contrary to public policy. Count II alleges that a provision in the contracts constitutes an impermissible tax on vehicle owners. The towing companies and the city answered the complaint. The city then filed a motion to dismiss, which a Superior Court judge allowed as to both counts against the city. In reaching this decision, the judge also sua sponte dismissed counts I and II as to the defendant towing companies.2 Statewide filed a notice of appeal.

On appeal, Statewide asserts (1) that the judge erred in sua sponte dismissing count I as to the towing company defendants; and (2) that the judge erred in dismissing count II as to all defendants. As we conclude that Statewide lacks standing to pursue relief for counts I and II, we affirm the judgment.

Background. The city contracts with towing companies to provide involuntary towing services when needed by the Lowell Police Department in the course of its official duties.3 In December, 2004, the city issued a "Request for Information" (RFI) seeking responses from towing contractors interested in providing towing services. The RFI sought information from potential towing contractors, including the amount of consideration a contractor would provide to the city on a per tow basis.4

Various towing contractors responded, indicating specific dollar amounts they were willing to pay to the city per vehicle in consideration for a contract.5 Thereafter, the chief of police of the city awarded contracts to six towing companies6 and designated each company to one of six geographical towing zones. Each contract was for a one-year term from January 1, 2005, to December 31, 2005, with a discretionary one-year renewal expiring on December 31, 2006.7

Regulations established by the Department of Telecommunications and Energy limit the maximum base rate of an involuntary tow to $90. All of the six towing contractors charge the maximum base rate. The consideration paid to the city, as set out in paragraph 18, comes out of this $90 rate.

The complaint alleges that Statewide is a Massachusetts nonprofit corporation. It further alleges that it is a membership association of Massachusetts businesses engaged in towing disabled and wrecked vehicles. Its membership includes unspecified towing companies with principal places of business in Lowell. The complaint also alleges that "[t]he contracts issued pursuant to the RFI raise important issues of statewide concern and the economic interests of [Statewide] members have been, or likely will be, adversely [a]ffected. The association has standing to bring this action because its members have standing to bring this suit, the issues are germane to the association's purpose, and the claim is one for declaratory judgment."

Discussion. 1. Count I. In count I, Statewide alleges that the payment of sums of money from the towing contractors to the city violates the statute regulating motor carriers of property, and constitute a prohibited kickback or referral fee, in violation of G.L. c 159B, §§ 6A and 19.8 In dismissing count I as to the defendant towing companies, the judge reasoned that because the city is not a "person" within the meaning of G.L. c. 159B, the city's contracts with the towing companies are not subject to regulation under G.L. c. 159B, §§ 6A and 19. As Statewide conceded in Superior Court that the city is not a "person" within the meaning of G.L. c. 159B, § 2, the only issue on the merits as to count I is whether, in fact, the judge appropriately determined that G.L. c. 159B, §§ 6A and 19, do not regulate the consideration paid by the defendant towing companies to the city pursuant to contract. We do not now reach this substantive issue, however, because we conclude that Statewide has not met the criteria for standing required to pursue this claim against both the city and the towing companies. Hence, we affirm the judgment as to count I.

"We treat standing as an issue of subject matter jurisdiction," Ginther v. Commissioner of Ins., 427 Mass. 319, 322, 693 N.E.2d 153 (1998). We must take note of the absence of standing, whenever it appears. Litton Bus. Sys., Inc. v. Commissioner of Rev., 383 Mass. 619, 622, 420 N.E.2d 339 (1981). See Mass.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3), 365 Mass. 757 (1974). Where a nonprofit organization asserts associational standing on behalf of its members, it must establish that its members would independently have standing to pursue the claim. Animal Legal Defense Fund, Inc. v. Fisheries & Wildlife Bd., 416 Mass. 635, 638 n. 4, 624 N.E.2d 556 (1993). Thus, Statewide must demonstrate that the "challenged action" has caused its independent members injury. Slama v. Attorney Gen., 384 Mass. 620, 624, 428 N.E.2d 134 (1981).

In the present case, Statewide has merely alleged that its constituents include unspecified towing companies based in Lowell. The allegations in the complaint, however, do not establish the identity of Statewide's members or whether Statewide's members actually participated in the bidding process or that their rights were demonstrably affected by paragraph 18. Cf. Modified Motorcycle Assn. of Mass., Inc. v. Commonwealth, 60 Mass. App.Ct. 83, 85-86, 799 N.E.2d 597 (2003) (representative standing accorded where complaint alleges that unspecified individual members were actually injured by the helmet regulation, i.e., that police stopped drivers for noncompliance). See Enos v. Secretary of Envtl. Affairs, 432 Mass. 132, 135, 731 N.E.2d 525 (2000). They do not show that the unspecified towing companies were actually injured by the inclusion of paragraph 18 in the RFI for the expired 2005-2006 contracts or in the contract purportedly in effect. See Burlington v. Bedford, 417 Mass. 161, 164, 628 N.E.2d 1280 (1994) ("Only persons who have themselves suffered, or who are in danger of suffering" have standing); Sullivan v. Chief Justice for Admn. & Mgmt. of the Trial Ct., 448 Mass. 15, 21, 858 N.E.2d 699 (2006) ("The complained-of injury must be a direct and ascertainable consequence of the challenged act"). Speculative injuries are insufficient to confer standing. Ginther v. Commissioner of Ins., 427 Mass. at 323, 693 N.E.2d 153. In short, Statewide has not shown that it has the associational standing to pursue this claim.

We also note that a prayer for declaratory relief does not vitiate the requirements of standing. See Doe v. The Governor, 381 Mass. 702, 704, 412 N.E.2d 325 (1980); Enos v. Secretary of Envtl. Affairs, 432 Mass. at 135, 731 N.E.2d 525 ("G.L. c. 231A does not provide an independent statutory basis for standing"). Similarly, as Statewide is not seeking to compel the city to perform a duty required by law (but rather seeking to invalidate a contractual provision to which it is not a party), it does not have separate standing under the public rights doctrine. Perella v. Massachusetts Turnpike Authy., 55 Mass.App.Ct. 537, 539-540, 772 N.E.2d 70 (2002). Lastly, where the Legislature has intended to confer private attorney general rights, it has done so expressly. Local 1445, United Food & Commercial Wrks. Union v. Police Chief of Natick, 29 Mass. App.Ct. 554, 558, 563 N.E.2d 693 (1990). These rights are not present in G.L. c. 159B, § 6A or § 19.

2. Count II. Statewide alleges that paragraph 18 amounts to an unlawful tax on vehicle owners whose vehicles are involuntarily towed. Before we can reach the merits of count II, we must analyze whether Statewide has standing to pursue this claim under G.L. c. 40, § 53. As we conclude that Statewide did not comply with G.L. c. 40, § 53, we affirm the judgment as to count II.

Pursuant to G.L. c. 40, § 53, as appearing in St.1969, c. 507, "[i]f a town ... or any of its officers or agents are about to raise ... money[9] ... in any manner other than that for and in which such town ... has the legal and constitutional right and power to raise ... money ..., the supreme judicial or superior court may, upon petition of not less than ten taxable inhabitants[10] of the town ... determine the same in equity, and may, before the...

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