PAXTON — A Champaign bus company contends that Ford County is the proper venue for the 104 small-claims cases it has filed since November — the majority against University of Illinois students — for violations of the company's "terms and conditions."
But an attorney representing one of the defendants says the venue is not only improper but appears to be a strategic move by the company — Suburban Express Inc. — "to make it difficult for the people to defend themselves."
And the Illinois Student Senate agrees, according to Tim Knudsen, a law student from Wheaton who serves as student body vice president external.
One issue, Knudsen said, is that with the cases being filed at the courthouse in Paxton — about 30 miles from the UI campus — the students named as defendants are not eligible to receive free representation from the UI's Student Legal Services, which only offers such assistance for cases filed in Champaign County.
"So therefore, it costs more to get an attorney to go to Ford County to try to defend yourself than it would to just pay the fine," Knudsen said. "The strategy on their end seems completely malicious."
Also, many of the cases were filed years after an alleged violation of the bus service's "terms and conditions," meaning some students may have graduated since then and are no longer in the area to show up in court as required, Knudsen said. Many of the defendants are international students, he noted.
The possibility that many students do not have a means of transportation to get to Ford County is another issue, Knudsen said. Of the 104 cases, eight judgments have been entered — usually after the defendants failed to appear in court.
Knudsen said the student senate discussed the lawsuit issue at a meeting Wednesday and plans to send a letter to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to explain the situation and ask for assistance. The student senate is also considering as a backup plan a potential lawsuit against the charter bus service.
"However, that would cost a big chunk of change," Kundsen said about the latter option, "and we are not going to do that unless it is completely necessary."
The student senate has also discussed the possibility of asking Student Legal Services to expand its jurisdiction to outside Champaign County, but Knudsen said that likely will not happen for quite some time, adding, "it's more of a trustee issue than a Student Senate issue."
Colleen Ramais, an attorney from the Meyer Capel law firm in Champaign, which is representing Suburban Express, said the small-claims cases allege the violation of terms and conditions each passenger must agree to before buying a ticket online.
Ramais said some of the alleged violations are related to students buying their tickets online, then printing out multiple copies of the tickets and allowing others to use them. Another issue has been students using tickets on the incorrect dates, or altering the dates listed on the printed copy, she said.
The company's terms and conditions specify that passengers "agree to pay the applicable full fare plus $100 for each valid, altered or duplicate ticket collected, and authorize us to charge your credit card for same."
Some people who have had charges added to their credit cards as a result of violations have failed to pay the fine, Ramais added.
An emailed statement from Suburban Express on Thursday stated: "We have a few very simple rules: Bring a printed ticket. Don't try to get on a bus you can't get a ticket for because it's sold out by using a ticket for another date. Don't try to get two rides when you have only paid for one. Don't try to ride with a counterfeit ticket.
"Most people find these rules quite reasonable, and most follow them. Unfortunately, about 1/10th of 1 percent of our customers choose to try to cheat us."
Dispute over venue
The bus company, owned by Dennis E. Toeppen of Champaign, filed its first small-claims complaint in Ford County in November 2012. The company's terms and conditions specify that Ford County is the designated venue for any legal action, according to court documents.
The company indicated in an email to the Paxton Record that it feels the location is more convenient for some students than Champaign County is.
"We file in Ford County because of the wide open court calendar, easy parking and service with a smile," a statement from Suburban Express said. "Additionally, all but one of our pending court dates are during the summer, and Paxton is closer for those traveling from Chicago than Champaign would be. For those who stay in Champaign, Zipcars are readily available; call the MTD for information."
Meanwhile, Lincolnshire attorney David E. Schaper, who is representing one of the 104 defendants, argued in court documents, citing the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, that the proper venue for these cases is either "in the county where the defendant resides or in the county where the transaction occurred out of."
Schaper has filed a motion for his client, Catherine Martin of Deerfield, requesting that the case be transferred to Lake County.
In October 2010, Martin purchased a one-way ticket — from Champaign-Urbana to Northbrook — for her teenage daughter, who was visiting the university. She used a credit card to buy the ticket for $26.45 on the Suburban Express website, according to court documents. But the bus never showed up, so subsequently her credit card company reversed the charge to her card because no services were provided.
In January, she received a debt-collection demand for $75 from Suburban Express' office in Lisle, Schaper said.
Suburban Express said in a response filed in court that the venue is proper, because the company's terms and conditions that Martin agreed to state Ford County is the venue. The response added that the Suburban Express website requires customers to read the terms and conditions prior to completing the transaction.
Judge Steve Pacey considered the motion for transfer of venue earlier this week in Ford County Circuit Court. According to Schaper, Pacey made no ruling but had some questions for the Suburban Express attorney.
"He asked, 'If you put Anchorage, Alaska, in this contract, could you make all these cases go to Anchorage, Alaska?' Schaper said.
"That's essentially their position: 'We can pick anywhere we want to go, and because you agreed to buy our ticket, you agreed to go anywhere we specified.'"
Numbers to consider
Of the cases that have had judgments entered, penalties have ranged from $127 plus filing and service fees to $242 plus fees. Seven of the cases have been dismissed after settlements were reached, while one was dismissed because that case was filed by Toeppen, rather than an attorney. Seven defendants have trials set.
The Ford County circuit clerk's office has received almost $5,000 in filing fees from cases filed by Suburban Express.
"As a circuit clerk's office, we file whatever anybody brings to us. All it's doing is bringing money to us," Ford County Circuit Clerk Kim Evans said Thursday, noting her office receives $47 per complaint. "It's our job to serve Ford County, and if that means bringing us 400 files, we file them."