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Legal Aid case leads to significant changes in Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) notices: work leads to fairness, better access to justice with license issues

Posted September 10, 2021
9:25 am

Confusing notices from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) are a thing of the past, thanks to Legal Aid’s successful advocacy on a recent case. The nonprofit law firm’s recent work led the BMV to re-write its notices informing drivers about security suspensions and noncompliance suspensions, which were – according to Legal Aid’s complaint – confusing to the point of being indecipherable for most recipients.

Beginning this fall, new notices will be mailed to drivers who do not have car insurance and who allegedly caused damage to another vehicle involved in an accident. Separate notices will be mailed about each type of suspension (there are two) to reduce confusion. Both notices will more clearly inform drivers of their rights and the steps they can take to set up a hearing and prevent a suspension.

The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland filed a case with the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas on behalf its client Mr. Pryor, whose license was suspended in 2019. Legal Aid argued that the BMV’s notice to Mr. Pryor about his suspension was so complicated and poorly written that it was impossible for him to understand he had rights to challenge the decision. Specifically, the old notices failed to clearly convey two required points: 1) Mr. Pryor had a right to request a hearing, and 2) Mr. Pryor could present evidence at the hearing that might prevent the BMV from suspending his driver’s license.

With help from an expert in forensic linguistics, Legal Aid argued it was impossible for a layperson unfamiliar with legal jargon to understand how and when to pursue a hearing to challenge a license suspension. Hearings give drivers the chance to prove an accident was not their fault, potentially avoiding strenuous fees that can amount to thousands of dollars.

During the process of litigation, Legal Aid attorneys, the linguistics expert, and Mr. Pryor worked together to submit revised versions of the suspension notices to the BMV for its consideration. The BMV accepted nearly all of the proposed changes and will begin issuing the new notices with simplified language this fall.

According to the constitutions of both the United States and Ohio, the BMV cannot suspend a driver’s license without “due process of law.” In the words of Legal Aid Senior Attorney Michael Russell, who filed the official complaint, “At its most basic, due process requires both adequate notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard…. Adequate notices must be complete, informative, and stated in plain language, especially when intended for recipients who may not have the resources to hire counsel or navigate complicated bureaucracies to correct an error.”

The result of this case has implications beyond BMV notices; indeed, it could be applied to any number of legal documents sent to individuals about their rights and responsibilities under the law.

“Mr. Pryor gets much of the credit for this positive outcome, which will impact more than 10,000 people a year in the state of Ohio,” says Michael Russell. “He could have settled for an agreement that addressed his suspension months ago. Instead, he wanted to pursue the larger issue make change that would affect others.  He delayed his remedy in order give Legal Aid more time to work with the BMV and improve the process at the systemic level.

This case should compel the state to be more thoughtful about how it communicates with the public, so the public can understand their rights and how to exercise them.”


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