The company with exclusive rights to transport the disabled in Miami-Dade County – accused in lawsuits of underpaying workers and injuring clients – is holding more than $400,000 in penalties the county claims it owes for failing to meet terms of its contract, Miami-Dade Transit officials tell NBC6 Investigators.
Transportation America’s 5-year, $208 million contract states the county will withhold the disputed amounts from the company while the dispute is resolved.
But transit officials say they are conceding to TA attorneys who claim the contract language is ambiguous, and letting the company hold the cash. The company says the county’s "standard operating procedures" allow it to hold the money until their appeal is resolved.
TA last paid the penalties, which are known as “liquidated damages,” in January 2014, according to county records.
In a statement, the company claims its "performance metrics exceed contractual requirements" and it is appealing the county’s claim that the $400,000 should have been withheld from the county’s payments to the firm. "There is no contractor in this industry that is not assessed liquidated damages," the company stated.
Under its contract, the appeal is ruled on by the director of transit or her designee.
The county can assess damages whenever TA denies or misses any of the trips requested by the 30,000 clients whose disabilities prevent them from taking public transportation, the contract states. Penalties are also allowed for certain late pick-ups, prolonged travel times, and excessive complaints, among other shortcomings.
County records state TA was assessed $156,168 in liquidated damages from April 2013, when its contract began, through September 2014, the last month for which records have been produced. But the damages, which are assessed monthly, are noted in only six of the 18 months in that time period.
TA said, if it is ordered to pay any of the money at the end of the appeals process, it will do so without interest.
Transportation America and related companies and individuals gave $50,500 in campaign contributions to campaign and political committees for the six Miami-Dade commissioners seeking reelection in 2014 – more than all but one other entity in the county, according to a 2014 Miami Herald investigation.
While the company said in a statement its accident and complaint rates are below industry standards, NBC 6 Investigators found serious allegations have been made, both in lawsuits in court and in complaints to county officials.
Ten drivers have been accused since January 2013 of sexual harassment or other offensive behavior by clients. They claimed employees flirted, asked for dates, or tried to touch or kiss them. One woman said a driver asked if her husband was good at sex. Another said the driver showed up unannounced at her house and asked to move in with her.
The company said it suspends drivers facing those serious accusations pending an investigation and it has "zero tolerance" for those found guilty of misconduct.
But the county has taken issue with TA’s performance.
In a reference to Broward County, which last week awarded TA half of its paratransit contract – what could become a seven-year, $50 million deal – Miami-Dade paratransit manager William Velez wrote TA was "sometime difficult … has high driver turnover and has experienced capacity constraints,” meaning the company does not always have enough drivers and/or vehicles for the trips required. He failed to respond to a question from Broward on whether he was “satisfied with the firm’s overall performance."
But, Velez added, the project was “completed on time … within the approved budget” and he would "engage this firm again."
TA is also being sued by drivers who claim they are not being paid overtime, despite working up to 72 hours a week. That lawsuit has been ordered to arbitration. The company said it "pays its employees as required by federal law."
Several clients and others are suing the firm, some due to auto accidents, but others involving injuries allegedly caused to clients by employee negligence.
One such client, Alice Mills, 78, said she no longer trusts TA to take her to the doctor or wherever else she needs to go.
"No I sure don’t. I’m scared of them," said the grandmother of 10. "They messed my life up."
She was being driven home from Mercy Hospital last July when a TA driver – acting in a "careless or negligent" manner -- drove into a light pole, according to a Miami police crash report. She said she needed three surgeries to repair damage from the crash and was in rehabilitation for weeks afterward.
The TA driver was not cited, but Mills is suing him and the company, claiming the driver was operating an iPad, cell phone or other device just before the crash – a violation of the county contract. When NBC 6 Investigators contacted the driver by phone, he denied using an electronic device prior to the crash.
TA would not comment on Mills’ or others’ lawsuits, citing "actual or potential litigation."
But Mills’ attorney, Andrew Yaffa, said the company is a frequent target of litigation. “We see them over and over again,” Yaffa said. “We call them repeat offenders.”
The company, though, notes it and its subcontractors’ vehicles travel nearly 15 million miles a year, making more than 140,000 trips per month. It claims drivers are involved in only about one accident per every 100,000 miles driven, less than the industry standard, the statement says.