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Understanding FMCSA civil penalties


In January 2023, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) announced inflation-adjusted increases to its civil penalties. Now, it’s probably not surprising to you that the FMCSA is vested with the authority to enforce its safety regulations by assessing civil penalties. It’s really no different than other government agencies imposing fines for other types of non-compliance. That in mind, there are some nuances to the FMCSA’s civil penalties which are worth discussing, at least at a high level.



How does the FMCSA initiate a civil penalty?


FMCSA follows a specific process to issue civil penalties, which is known as the Notice of Claim procedure. This procedure is set out in the FMCSA’s regulations in Part 386, and essentially involves the agency documenting the discovered violations in writing and then serving them on the motor carrier or driver through what’s known as a Notice of Claim. This notice describes the violations and includes the calculated penalties associated with those violations. The notice then goes on to detail the carrier’s or driver’s right to appeal or negotiate the fine and also provides instructions for paying the fine.


Sample Notice of Claim

The agency is empowered to issue notices of claim and corresponding penalties following the discovery of any regulatory violations in any context. In our experience, however, these notices most often follow DOT audits in which the agency has discovered fairly significant regulatory violations. We have discussed DOT audits and their consequences in another article. It’s less common for a carrier or driver to receive notices of claims based on violations discovered during roadside inspections, but that’s certainly a possibility, particularly if there is a significant pattern of non-compliance discovered in those inspections.


How are FMCSA civil penalties calculated?


FMCSA’s regulations contain a penalty schedule in Appendix B to Part 386, which sets the maximum allowable penalties for certain categories of violations. Importantly, these are maximum penalty amounts, meaning they are caps on the allowable fines for each category of violations. As noted previously, the agency recently announced inflation adjusted increases to these maximum penalty amounts, which are shown at the bottom of this article. As shown in that chart, the penalty schedule sets a maximum penalty for certain recordkeeping violations of $1,496 for each day the violation continues, up to a maximum of $14,960. So let’s say that during an audit the FMCSA finds that the carrier failed to have compliant driver qualification files in place for its drivers. In that circumstance, the FMCSA’s regulations allow it to impose a maximum penalty of up to $14,960 for that particular violation.


It's important to understand, however, that the FMCSA very rarely imposes the maximum allowable penalties for discovered violations. This is because the agency has a statutory obligation to take several factors into consideration when calculating the actual amount of penalties on a case-by-case basis. Specifically, the FMCSA is bound by federal statute to consider the following factors: the nature, circumstances, extent, and gravity of the violation, and the violator’s degree of culpability, any history of prior offenses, and the potential effect of the penalty on the carrier’s ability to continue to do business. The way that the FMCSA does this is through its utilization of what’s known as the Uniform Fine Assessment worksheet or UFA for short. This worksheet takes into account these various factors and then calculates a penalty amount, that will then be included with the notice of claim that is sent to the carrier.


What options do you have if you receive a civil penalty?


Carriers and drivers have a few options when it comes to responding to a notice of claim. First of all, Part 386 allows carriers to file appeals of the notices if they believe they were issued in error. These appeals are adjudicated through the DOT’s Office of Administrative Hearings, and, if they proceed to hearing, will be heard and decided by an Administrative Law Judge. These appeals are fairly formal in nature, and will often involve the document discovery process, briefing, and an administrative appeal, so if a carrier wishes to appeal a civil penalty, we strongly recommend getting legal counsel involved early on in the process. Other options for responding to a notice of claim include participating in a binding arbitration process where the FMCSA and the carrier will try and reach a less formal resolution of the civil penalty, as well as an even more informal settlement negotiation process with the FMCSA directly. Lastly, carriers certainly have the option to pay the full penalty without dispute.


What are the most common violations that lead to FMCSA civil penalties?


Each year, the FMCSA publishes data on its closed enforcement cases, including the names of the carriers or individuals against whom the fines were assessed, the civil penalty amounts, and the types of violations at issue in each case. In 2022, the agency settled a total 3,357 civil penalty cases against motor carriers for a total of $23,545,861.


FMCSA Civil Penalty Data

The most common regulatory violations contributing to these fines include failing to properly test drivers for drugs and alcohol, using drivers who were not properly licensed, and driver log falsifications.


Conclusion


The FMCSA actively investigates regulatory violations and regularly imposes civil penalties. This process and the civil penalty amounts are governed by the agency’s civil penalty regulations in Part 386 of the federal safety regulations. If you’ve been assessed a civil penalty and need help addressing it, feel free to contact us. For even more comprehensive content on the federal safety regulations, check out our online courses for safety managers and drivers at Trucksafe Academy.


About Trucksafe Consulting, LLC: Trucksafe Consulting is a full-service DOT regulatory compliance consulting and training service. We help carriers develop, implement, and improve their safety programs, through personalized services, industry-leading training, and a library of educational content. Trucksafe also hosts a monthly live show on its various social media channels called Trucksafe LIVE! to discuss hot-button issues impacting highway transportation. Trucksafe is owned and operated by Brandon Wiseman and Jerad Childress, transportation attorneys who have assisted some of the nation’s leading fleets to develop and maintain cutting-edge safety programs. You can learn more about Trucksafe online at www.trucksafe.com and by following Trucksafe on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

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