PAXTON — In response to a backlash from University of Illinois students, a Champaign charter bus service has pledged to dismiss all 124 small-claims cases it has filed in Ford County Circuit Court for alleged violations of the company's "terms and conditions" — many of which were against UI students.
"We decided over the weekend to voluntarily drop all of the lawsuits in Ford County," stated an email Monday from Dennis E. Toeppen of Champaign, president of Suburban Express Inc.
"We recognized that this legal approach of trying to uphold our agreement with customers carries with it a negative perception that we do not intend. Instead, we will look at other ways of communicating and upholding the terms and conditions of our ticket-purchase agreement, which is designed to ensure convenience and efficiency for all of our customers."
Toeppen added that he is in the process of revising the terms and conditions of purchasing tickets. A notice posted Monday on the Suburban Express website said the terms are being revised "in response to our changed understanding of market sentiments."
Toeppen's decision to have the lawsuits dismissed came on the same day that Ford County Judge Steve Pacey entered an order in favor of a change of venue for one of the cases.
Pacey said in his order that it is "obvious" that having Ford County serve as the venue would be an "inconvenience" to the defendant, who lives in Lake County. Pacey said the venue is improper because the defendant does not live in Ford County and the transaction was not made in Ford County.
The venue for Suburban Express' 124 lawsuits — the courthouse in Paxton — is almost 30 miles from the UI campus. Some students complained last week that the venue was not only improper — since it was not the county where they reside or where the transaction took place — but also appeared to be a strategy to make it difficult for them to defend themselves.
One issue was that because the cases were filed in Ford County, the many students named as defendants were not eligible to receive free representation from the UI's Student Legal Services, which only offers such assistance for cases filed in Champaign County.
The Illinois Student Senate was preparing to send a letter to the Illinois attorney general's office to explain the situation and ask for assistance.
As of Monday, the attorney general's office had received "about a half dozen inquiries and/or complaints about this company," according to spokesman Scott Mulford.
Suburban Express indicated last week that it filed the cases in Ford County — even though none of the defendants live there or bought a Suburban Express bus ticket there — "because of the wide open court calendar, easy parking and service with a smile." The company added that its "terms and conditions," which each customer must agree to before buying a ticket, had specified that Ford County is the designated venue for any legal action that arises.
Meanwhile, Lincolnshire attorney David E. Schaper, who is representing one of the 124 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."
On Monday, Pacey granted Schaper's motion for a change of venue for his client, Catherine Martin of Deerfield, for the case to be transferred to Lake County.
"The inconvenience of the parties traveling from DuPage, Lake or Champaign counties ... to Ford County, Ill., for a $68.75 claim is obvious," Pacey wrote in his order.
"From reading the decision, you can see that the judge looked at the applicable law and applied the law to our facts," Schaper said Monday.
Also Monday, seven of the Suburban Express cases were dismissed by the law firm representing Suburban Express in its small-claims suits.
Motions for dismissal were filed by Rochelle A. Funderburg of the Meyer Capel law firm in Champaign. The motions, all identical, state the "plaintiffs and defendant have come to a mutual resolution of this claim."
Funderburg declined to comment when reached by email Monday.
"My policy is not to comment on clients' pending matters," Funderburg said.
Seven other cases had been dismissed earlier this year, after settlements were reached, while one was dismissed because that case was filed by Toeppen, rather than an attorney.
It was not immediately clear when the other 110 cases would be dismissed as pledged by Toeppen.
Colleen Ramais, an attorney from the Meyer Capel law firm, said last week that the small-claims cases involved 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 had charges added to their credit cards had those charges removed, Ramais added.
The Suburban Express website was updated Monday with a posting that said: "You asked for it: New terms and conditions."
The terms and conditions, effective Monday, "should be considered interim terms and conditions, as we plan to tweak these more," the site noted.
The mention of Ford County being the venue for legal action was removed. Also removed was the mention of a $100 fine for violations.
"You agree to pay any and all collection costs, including attorney's fees, should collection or other legal action become necessary," the revised terms and conditions stated.
Meanwhile, the attorney general's office encouraged consumers to "let us know" if they have a complaint about a company.
"They can call our hotline at 1-800-243-0618 to ask for a complaint form or download one from our website http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov," Mulford said. "We also have a regional office there in Urbana at 1776 E. Washington."
An emailed statement from Suburban Express last week 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."