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Metro

Judge eases freezing of cab owner’s assets

Boston Cab owner Edward Tutunjian, shown in October, is being sued by drivers who lease taxis from him.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2012

Boston Cab owner Edward Tutunjian, shown in October, is being sued by drivers who lease taxis from him.

The judge who had frozen the assets of Boston’s largest taxi fleet owner, including all 372 of his taxi medallions, eased the burden of that order Thursday, exempting 100 of Edward J. Tutunjian’s licenses.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Linda E. Giles had earlier attached all the licenses, each worth about $600,000, after finding that Tutunjian and other owners stand a “reasonable likelihood” of losing a pending class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of cabdrivers.

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Giles’s revised order came after Tutunjian’s lawyers argued that the lawsuit has been brought on behalf of only certain drivers, those who lease cabs from Tutunjian for 12 or 24 hours, but not those who lease weekly. That, they argued, should reduce the estimate of how much money drivers could expect to win if the class-action lawsuit succeeds.

In a court hearing Tuesday , a lawyer for Tutunjian, Daniel J. Wood of Wrentham, argued that Giles’s original order freezing his client’s assets had put Tutunjian in a financial bind. Wood said Tutunjian fears being held in contempt of court if he uses his corporate proceeds for things like mortgage payments on vineyards he owns in Chile, insurance claims as a result of car crashes, or even routine legal fees.

Giles said those would be considered ordinary business expenses that would fall outside her order attaching Tutunjian’s assets.

“I don’t want Mr. Tutunjian to go into default on loans,’’ the judge said during the hearing.

The lawyer for the drivers, Shannon Liss-Riordan, said she intends to amend the civil lawsuit to include those who rent Tutunjian’s taxis by the week. She said the lawsuit was always intended to cover every driver who pays to rent taxis, no matter the length of those leases.

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EJT Management, which oversees Tutunjian’s taxi companies, said in a statement that it was pleased with Giles modification but intends to appeal her attachment order anyway, believing the case brought by the drivers is without merit.

The case alleges that drivers are unlawfully employed as independent contractors, rather than being paid as employees.

“The system of independent contractors is written into city regulations and state law,’’ the EJT statement said. “The city of Boston permitted medallion owners to lease cabs beginning in December 1974 and has set the lease rates owners can charge drivers since at least 1988.’’

Tutunjian’s management of his taxi empire was examined by the Globe Spotlight Team earlier this year.

The Spotlight Team found that many drivers are pressured to pay Tutunjian employees small bribes to get the keys to his cabs and that they often face demands to make up phantom shortfalls in the shift payments for which they receive no receipts.

Two months after the Spotlight report, Internal Revenue Service agents, other federal agents, and local police officers, armed with a search warrant, raided Tutunjian’s garage. IRS agents had their guns drawn, according to a driver who witnessed the May 31 raid. The agents carried out boxes of Tutunjian’s records.

As part of the case, Boston’s chief taxi regulator, Mark Cohen, testified in a deposition earlier this week about his management of the system and the reasons for his abrupt suspension from his post.

Cohen made an emergency appeal to block disclosure of that testimony, but Giles ruled against him Thursday.

Cohen, who has been regulating city taxis since the 1980s, was placed on paid leave from his $110,000-a-year position on April 11 after alleged misconduct with a Boston Police Department employee.

In testimony on Monday, he said his removal from his post was, in part, related to the Globe reporting on his oversight of the industry. The Globe found a badly unbalanced system in which drivers are regularly punished for rules violations but wealthy fleet owners are rarely called to account, despite complaints that they exact petty bribes and regularly ignore regulations.

“I was instructed to take a leave of absence by the police commissioner of the City of Boston for the good of the department,’’ Cohen said in a sworn deposition Monday.

Cohen’s suspension followed alleged misconduct with a subordinate. “I was involved in a dispute with an employee,” he said. “. . . I got angry and displayed my anger towards this individual.’’

Giles, in ruling against Cohen, said he should have known his testimony would become public.

“Having interjected himself voluntarily into this high-
profile dispute, Cohen should not be surprised that, consequently, his privacy has been compromised,’’ Giles ruled.

Thomas Farragher can
be reached at farragher@
globe.com.

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