Former Swift school trainees file suit over withdrawn CDLs

| 3/25/2009

Dennis and Francis Wolf traveled to Tennessee from Illinois in June 2006 to begin their trucking lives working for the nation’s largest motor carrier.

The couple was willing to shell out nearly $4,000 and stay at a hotel in order to establish in-state residency at the one-stop trucking school and CDL licensing shop. The Wolfs spent 23 days in classes before moving back to Illinois, exchanging the Tennessee CDL for an Illinois one and working as commercial drivers.

Two-and-a-half years later, the Wolfs received a letter from their home state saying their CDLs were invalid due to improper testing in Tennessee.

Four former CDL holders who paid thousands of dollars to a Tennessee driving school for tuition and CDL testing are suing Swift Transportation Co. Inc., after their licenses were deemed invalid this past winter, and are planning on taking their suit to class action status.

The suit was filed March 11, 2009, in U.S. District Court for Western Tennessee. The suit essentially claims that the carrier cut corners and didn’t comply with state testing regulations, rendering the $3,900 tuition and licensing useless.

“You paid for your CDL testing and your CDL – but you didn’t get it,” said plaintiff’s attorney Bill Burns.

Michael Ham, Jemonia Ham, Dennis R. Wolf and Francis Wolf are named as plaintiffs opposing defendant Swift. The Hams are from Connecticut, and the Wolf family is from Illinois. The plaintiffs seek a jury trial and class action status for the suit, and compensatory and punitive damages from Swift.

Swift’s position as potential employer, school facilitator and license issuer gave it a unique appeal for potential commercial drivers, the lawsuit states.

“What was unique to Swift’s program was its ability to directly issue a Tennessee State CDL to its students upon their completion of the program and their passage of a classroom exam as well as pre-trip, skills and road tests,” court documents state.

That position, however, according to the suit also allegedly led to shortcuts that cost thousands of drivers their licenses.

The drivers claim that Swift employees who acted as “behind the wheel” instructors during the training phase of the program also worked as actual testers for the Tennessee CDL. They further claim that while student drivers were merely training, Swift employees falsely filled out paper work indicating that drivers had actually conducted and passed skills tests.

Swift Vice-President Dave Berry said the company didn’t want to comment on the lawsuit categorically, but he briefly addressed Swift’s belief that the suit is without merit.

“We deny all of the allegations, and I can tell you we will vigorously defend ourselves,” Berry told Land Line. “We’re looking forward to discussing the merits in court.”

In February 2008, the state-certified CDL testing center at a Swift Trucking facility near Memphis was raided by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, the U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general; Secret Service; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; U.S. Marshals; Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration; and Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Tennessee Department of Safety.

Documents were seized, and the investigation reportedly centered on the illegal issuance of CDLs.

Although no charges emerged, in January of this year Tennessee announced that drivers who obtained a commercial driver’s license through an unnamed third-party tester in Tennessee between May 2005 and January 2008 may be required to do a complete retest, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety.

The CDL debacle has affected at least 5,000 drivers nationally. Many drivers have lost jobs, and others aren’t able to gain access to a truck for retesting in their home state.

According to court documents, plaintiffs in the lawsuit believe total potential class members’ claims exceed $5 million.

Tennessee has mailed letters to the approximately 1,300 CDL holders in that state. These are drivers who obtained CDLs from the Swift-run CDL testing facility near Memphis, TN, between May 2005 and January 2008, Laura McPherson, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Safety, told Land Line in January.

The department has a breakdown of affected drivers by state, McPherson said, including about 1,200 from Georgia and likely at least 5,000 nationally who were issued CDLs from the third-party tester during that 32-month span.

Plaintiffs allege that the defendant’s financial worth should be taken into account when considering punitive damages, and alleges the carrier used its school and licensing system “to garner significant revenue as well as secure new truck driver employees.” The suit claims Swift “intentionally or recklessly abused its relationship with plaintiffs and the other class members ‘who are primarily low-income consumers’ by charging them for services they did not receive.”

The suit claims that Swift owned the Millington, TN-area hotel in which trucking school students stayed at, which reportedly had been converted so multiple students stayed in specific rooms. Plaintiff attorneys said Wednesday, March 25, they’re still verifying Swift’s relationship to the hotel.

Burns said his firm has talked to many drivers who have either been terminated or prevented from working in trucking jobs after they obtained a CDL through Swift between 2005 and 2008. The CDL suit is appropriately a potential class action lawsuit, Burns said.

“At the end of the day – class actions sometimes get a bad rap,” Burns said. “In this particular instance, it’s the right vehicle to litigate this case because there are so many people spread out through the U.S. that don’t have the individual funds to litigate this case.”

Burns encouraged anyone who attended the driving school and whose CDL status has recently changed to e-mail

Asked whether the company would consider refunding part of the tuition and licensing costs assessed drivers, Berry repeated that he wouldn’t comment on the case.

“Never has the quality of the training come into question,” Berry told Land Line. “Swift is not a target of the investigation.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer

Editor’s note: Though Bill Burns encouraged e-mail, he also said individuals may call the Watson Burns law office at 901-578-3528.