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Cabbies’ lawsuit over Uber in Boston dismissed

Uber driver Dean Johnson waited for a customer outside Boston’s South Station in April. Craig Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

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A federal judge has ruled that Boston is not required to hold digital-age transportation services such as Uber and Lyft to the same rules as taxi companies, using a new state law to dismiss a case against the city from a group of cab owners.

The cab companies had argued in their lawsuit that Boston was violating their equal protection rights by holding them to strict standards while not regulating the Uber drivers they compete with. Taxi companies follow a number of municipal rules that include a permitting process, vehicle standards, and fare rates set by the city.

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US District Court Judge Nathaniel Gorton had previously shown some sympathy to the equal protection argument. In March, he declined to dismiss the claim and said ride-hailing services and taxi companies share many similarities.

In a decision issued Wednesday, however, Gorton dismissed the claim, saying it was made irrelevant when the Massachusetts Legislature brought drivers for Uber and similar companies under state oversight and largely prohibited local governments from creating their own rules for those services.

Gorton said that means Boston now cannot be expected to govern Uber and Lyft.

“It is thus state policy, not municipal policy that now prevents [Boston] from regulating” Uber and Lyft, Gorton wrote.

Lieutenant Michael McCarthy, a spokesman for the Boston Police Department, which oversees the taxi industry, said the decision “confirms that the city and the police commissioner acted appropriately in regulating taxicabs.”

Uber called the ruling “a victory for competition and innovation in the transportation marketplace across the Commonwealth.” Lyft declined to comment; the two companies were not named as defendants in the suit.

Gorton’s order is the latest setback for cab companies in their effort to stem the fast-rising tide of their smartphone-centric competitors. The city caps the number of permitted cabs on the road at 1,825, and the value of local taxi licenses has plummeted with the rise of Uber.

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A similar suit in Chicago was dismissed in October, after a federal appeals court said Uber was different enough from taxi services to warrant different sets of rules. Additionally, the new Massachusetts law did not include rules that the taxi industry had pushed, such as requiring Uber drivers to submit to fingerprint background checks and have around-the-clock commercial vehicle insurance.

The suit’s dismissal doesn’t mark the end of the cabbies’ fight in Boston, said Jenifer Pinkham, the group’s attorney. She said the taxi owners would now shift their focus to a separate lawsuit that challenges the state law, while considering whether to appeal Gorton’s ruling in the case against the city.

“You have this dichotomy where at the local level, taxis are being regulated, but only at the state level are [transportation network companies] being regulated,” she said. “I think that’s a breeding ground for taxis being treated unfairly.”

The taxi group’s other lawsuit, against the Massachusetts law, is also in federal court and being overseen by Gorton. It claims the new law is unconstitutional and accuses Governor Charlie Baker of creating a system that regulates Uber and cabs differently. That case is scheduled for a hearing in January.

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And last Friday, more than 30 livery companies from Somerville, Medford, Everett, Malden, and Boston filed yet another suit with a similar argument against Baker, but also naming Uber and accusing the company of monopolizing hired-ride services in the region.

Baker spokesman William Pitman said the governor “was pleased” to have signed the new law earlier this year but declined to discuss the litigation. The law’s requirements include vehicle inspection and a new state background check of drivers that does not include a fingerprint check.

The legislative grappling also seems likely to continue. Scott Solombrino, a livery industry executive who has campaigned on behalf of taxi companies for more stringent rules on Uber, has said he expects lawmakers next year to consider adding a fingerprint background check for drivers.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.