Commonwealth Court overturns trial court's view of 'de minimus' vehicle registration compliance

By Nicholas Malfitano | Oct 5, 2016

HARRISBURG -- In the eyes of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, the three-month suspension of a man’s vehicle registration imposed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Motor Vehicles (DOT) was valid.

On Sept. 29, Judge Rochelle S. Friedman explained plaintiff Sudharsan Parthasarathy did not fulfill his legal burden in this matter, while the DOT “satisfied its burden by offering into evidence certified documents establishing that Parthasarathy’s vehicle was required to be registered in the Commonwealth, and that Government Employees Insurance Company (GEICO) had terminated Parthasarathy’s vehicle insurance policy.”

“On July 30, 2015, GEICO terminated Parthasarathy’s vehicle insurance policy on his 2011 Honda CRV for nonpayment,” Friedman said.

“By notice mailed Aug. 11, 2015, DOT notified Parthasarathy that GEICO had informed DOT of the termination of Parthasarathy’s vehicle insurance policy, and that Parthasarathy’s vehicle registration would be suspended for three months unless he provided proof of vehicle insurance within 30 days of the policy’s termination on July 30, 2015.”

The DOT notified Parthasarathy on Sept. 22, 2015 that his vehicle registration was being suspended for three months, beginning Oct. 27, 2015. Thereafter, Parthasarathy filed a timely petition for review with the trial court, the Chester County Court of Common Pleas.

Parthasarathy testified he was in India from June 18, 2015 to Sept. 4, 2015, during which time his Honda vehicle was not used. Parthasarathy testified that while he was in India, he had “no access to any correspondence, and any attempts to contact and process payment to my insurance company was denied because my credit cards were not being accepted.”

“Parthasarathy further testified that when he returned from India, he ‘did the necessary payment and registration procedure’ and his vehicle insurance was reinstated on Sept. 9, 2015,” Friedman recounted.

The trial court judge asked Parthasarathy if he was aware that under Pennsylvania law, he could pay a fine of $500 instead of serving a suspension period. Parthasarathy testified he “was aware of that option but indicated that he could not pay the civil penalty because he was in a difficult financial position.”

Counsel for the DOT argued Pennsylvania law provides a registrant “a 30-day window where [DOT] will accept new insurance as long as you have not operated the vehicle.” Parthasarathy did not reinstate his vehicle insurance until “more than a week past the 30 days.”

Yet, the trial court judge’s opinion and order issued on Nov. 12, 2015 stated Parthasarathy’s not following of the law was “de minimis,” and though he was unable to renew his registration in India, he did so immediately upon his return to the United States. The trial court sustained Parthasarathy’s appeal and rescinded the three-month suspension of his vehicle registration.

The DOT appealed to the Commonwealth Court on Dec. 10, 2015.

“DOT argues that the trial court erred in sustaining Parthasarathy’s appeal on the grounds that Parthasarathy’s 41-day lapse in insurance coverage was de minimis and that Parthasarathy was in 'substantial compliance' with the Code. We agree [with this objection],” Friedman wrote for the court.

The judge explained the DOT had to show the vehicle was required to be registered in Pennsylvania and proof that the registration has been “cancelled or otherwise terminated.”

“Here, DOT satisfied its burden by offering into evidence certified documents establishing that Parthasarathy’s vehicle was required to be registered in the Commonwealth” and that GEICO had terminated Parthasarathy’s vehicle insurance policy, Friedman said.

Parthasarathy admitted he did not maintain an insurance policy on the vehicle for 41 days between July 30, 2015 and Sept. 9, 2015. Because the lapse in Parthasarathy’s vehicle insurance policy was more than 31 days, Parthasarathy did not satisfy the exception, the judge said.

As a direct result of this lack of satisfaction, Friedman explained the Commonwealth Court had cause to reverse the trial court ruling.

“However, the trial court did not have the discretion to sustain Parthasarathy’s appeal based on the concepts of de minimis deviation and substantial compliance because section 1786(d)(2)(i) of the Code explicitly limits the provision’s application to lapses in vehicle insurance for 'less than 31 days,'” Friedman said.

“Here, the lapse was 41 days. Therefore, the trial court erred in sustaining Parthasarathy’s appeal. Accordingly, we reverse.”

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania case 2562 C.D. 2015

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at

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