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Cochran v. Illinois State Toll Highway Authority

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

March 27, 2015



MANISH S. SHAH, District Judge.

In December 2013, Jeffrey Cochran, a lifelong Ohio resident, drove to Chicago to visit family. Unfamiliar with Illinois's open-road toll highway system, he inadvertently failed to pay three tolls. Had he paid those missed tolls online or by mail within seven days, no fine would have been assessed. But he was unaware of this grace period and, as a result, paid $60 in fines ($20 per missed toll). He sued the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority and members of its Board of Directors. He alleges that the Authority educates Illinois residents to a greater extent than non-residents on the operation of the toll system. Allegedly, the resulting information asymmetry results in out-of-state residents being disproportionately fined for missing tolls and not paying them within the grace period.

Cochran's allegations do not plausibly suggest that the Authority is violating the Constitution. Accordingly, the Authority's and the individual Board members' motions to dismiss are granted.

I. Legal Standards

In deciding whether to dismiss Cochran's claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), I construe the complaint in the light most favorable to Cochran, accept as true all well-pleaded facts, and draw reasonable inferences in his favor. Yeftich v. Navistar, Inc., 722 F.3d 911, 915 (7th Cir. 2013). The complaint must include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). It must "give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal marks omitted). To avoid dismissal, the complaint must "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Yeftich, 722 F.3d at 915 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Yeftich, 722 F.3d at 915 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)).

II. Facts

A. The Illinois Toll Highway System

The Illinois State Toll Highway Authority is an administrative agency of the State of Illinois. FAC ¶ 5. The Authority operates the Illinois toll highway system. FAC ¶ 5. In that system, drivers can pay tolls using cash, but to do so they must use designated cash lanes (which can require exiting the main roadway, paying the toll, and merging back into traffic downstream). FAC ¶ 21. In contrast, drivers of cars equipped with electronic transponders can maintain freeway speeds: tolls are automatically paid as they pass tolling stations. FAC ¶ 21. Transponders are available to both residents and non-residents. FAC ¶¶ 3, 15-16. A large majority (80%) of drivers on Illinois's toll highways use transponders. FAC ¶ 23. Cochran alleges that "most cash-paying customers are out-of-state residents." FAC ¶ 23.

To design the road signs that instruct drivers how to pay tolls, the Authority conducted research in which users viewed multiple prototype signs and were asked which ones best conveyed the tolling instructions. FAC ¶ 27. Based on that research, the Authority selected the most visible signs. FAC ¶ 27. The Authority conducted a campaign to educate Illinois residents on the procedures. FAC ¶ 23.

The driver of a car not equipped with a transponder must use the designated cash lanes-if he drives through a lane meant for cars with transponders, he'll miss paying the toll. FAC ¶ 30. If he knows the date, time, and location, he can pay the missed toll online or by mail. FAC ¶¶ 25, 31. No fine is assessed if he pays within seven days. FAC ¶ 31. Even if he doesn't pay within seven days, no fine is assessed until the third such violation in a two-year period. FAC ¶ 31. After a third violation, the Authority commences "toll evasion recovery." FAC ¶ 32. A notice is mailed to the car's owner; the amount owing is the sum of the missed tolls plus a fine for each missed toll. FAC ¶ 32. The notice informs the owner that he has 21 days in which to pay in full or contest the charge at a hearing. FAC ¶ 32. The notice also informs the owner that "[t]oll evasion is a public, strict liability and vicarious liability violation. Therefore, the following are not legal defenses or mitigating factors under Illinois law: (1) the violation notice wasn't mailed sooner, (2) the driver did not intend to miss the payment or go through [a transponder] lane, or (3) someone else was driving the vehicle." FAC ¶ 32. Cochran alleges that the Authority collects $33 million per year through toll evasion recovery, and that an "inordinate amount" of that comes from non-residents. FAC ¶ 43.

B. Cochran's Missed Tolls

In December 2013, Cochran drove from northeast Ohio to Chicago. FAC ¶¶ 35, 37. When he crossed into Illinois, he received no information on how the Illinois toll system worked. FAC ¶ 37. Because he was unaware that he had to exit the main roadway, pay his toll using the designated cash lane, and then merge back onto the roadway, Cochran missed three tolls. FAC ¶¶ 38-41. He realized that he might have missed tolls, so he called the Authority's toll-free phone number. FAC ¶ 40. Because the Authority's database had not yet been updated, the person Cochran spoke to found no information about his missed tolls. FAC ¶ 40.

On January 30, 2014-after the expiration of the grace period on Cochran's third violation-the Authority mailed a notice stating that Cochran owed $64.50 (three tolls of $1.50 each, plus three fines of $20 each). FAC ¶ 41. Cochran called the Authority to find out what his options were, and was told he needed to pay in full immediately or he would face additional fines. FAC ¶ 42. He paid. FAC ¶ 42. He later ...

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