Judge allows bus company to refile some claims against passengers
PAXTON — Suburban Express Inc. — a Champaign charter bus service whose legal tactics created an Internet uproar among University of Illinois students — will get another day in court. But probably not Ford County Circuit Court.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ford County Judge Steve Pacey granted motions that will allow the bus company to refile some of its 126 small-claims cases against passengers for violating the company's "terms and conditions" of buying tickets online.
A total of 116 of the cases — many against UI students — had been dismissed "with prejudice" in the spring, meaning Suburban Express had been barred from filing another case on the same claim.
But on May 28, motions were filed to vacate 22 of the dismissals with prejudice — and change the dismissals to "without prejudice," allowing them to be refiled.
Pacey granted the motions in 20 of those cases on Tuesday.
"They get their day in court, just the same as most people get their day in court," Pacey said.
Dennis E. Toeppen, the president of Suburban Express, said the cases will not be refiled in Ford County — which had been the designated venue for any legal action that arose.
Toeppen said most of the cases that will be refiled will be brought to Champaign County Circuit Court, so the many UI students named as defendants can have access to free legal representation by the UI's Student Legal Services.
UI students had raised an issue earlier this year with the cases being filed in Ford County, suggesting that the move was done to prevent them from having affordable legal representation. Student Legal Services only offers assistance for cases filed in Champaign County.
After a backlash from UI students, Toeppen filed motions to dismiss 103 of the cases "with prejudice" on April 30; one day earlier, seven other cases were dismissed. Six others had been dismissed earlier in the year, while the other 10 cases already had judgments entered against the defendants.
Pacey made no ruling Tuesday in two of the 22 cases for which motions to vacate dismissals were filed. One was not decided due to an oversight, while the other was rescheduled because the defendant's attorney, Ross Sorensen of Paxton, was not notified in advance.
Pacey said he "was hoping" he could find case law preventing the motions to vacate the dismissals with prejudice from being granted, but he said he could not find such a legal opinion.
Rather, Pacey said, statutes allow a judge's discretion to vacate dismissals with prejudice as long as the motion to vacate the dismissal is filed within 30 days of the filing of the motion to dismiss.
Of the 22 defendants, only three had arranged for their attorneys to appear in court Tuesday. Most of the defendants had not been served notice of the hearing, Pacey noted.
Suburban Express was represented in court by attorney George Bellas of the Bellas & Wachowski law firm of Park Ridge. Arguing against the motions on behalf of their respective clients were Lincolnshire attorney David E. Schaper and Highland Park attorney Alain Leval.
Leval, whose son Jeremy Leval, a UI student, is named as one of the defendants, said he was disappointed Pacey granted the motion. Leval said that although a judge does have discretion to allow a dismissal to be vacated, the judge is not required to.
"He has to take into account whether the interest of justice will be served. I disagree with the judge's ruling because I think what we have here is simply a situation where a lot of evidence has disappeared — this involves a lot of international students; it involves people who have nominal interests — but yet it's critical to the case," Leval said after the hearing.
Added Leval: "Nothing has changed since (Toeppen) voluntarily dismissed the case. Nothing at all. The facts haven't changed. The law hasn't changed. It's not as if the plaintiff had agreed to dismiss the case because the defendant (had agreed) to do something (in return, but the defendant never followed through). There was no requirement on the part of Jeremy to do anything at all, so there's no basis for this, and we're disappointed."
In the case of Schaper's client, Catherine Martin of Deerfield, Pacey granted the motion to vacate the dismissal of the case, but Pacey denied a separate motion to reconsider his decision to transfer the case to Lake County, where Schaper's client lives and bought the Suburban Express ticket.
"Today, the judge said that he believed that because he transferred the case (prior to the motion to dismiss the case was filed), it really wasn't his place to enter the dismissal — that it should have been entered some place else if it was going to be entered," Schaper said.
Schaper said Suburban Express' attorney told him the case would be refiled in Lake County.
The cases that Suburban Express is seeking to reinstate seek damages ranging from $68.59 to $629.95, plus court costs and attorney fees.
Earlier this year, Colleen Ramais, an attorney from the Meyer Capel law firm, which had been representing the bus company, said some of the cases involved students buying their tickets online, then printing out multiple copies of the tickets and allowing others to use them. Another issue was students using tickets on the incorrect dates, or altering the dates listed on the printed copy, she said.
In Jeremy Leval's case, he was fined $570 for creating a disruption on the bus he was riding. The "terms and conditions" had warned fines could be issued for disruptive behavior.
"(Toeppen) basically suggested my son caused a tumult on the bus; however, what in fact the bus driver acknowledged (Jeremy) did is he came up to the bus driver and spoke to the bus driver after (the driver) had intimidated a foreign student who didn't speak well," Leval said, noting his son was simply defending the foreign student.
"The bus driver came forward as the bus was at O'Hare (airport) and (told Jeremy), 'You've caused a problem.' But interesting enough, there is a full apology on the part of the bus driver and the president of the company the bus driver's employed by."
Leval noted the driver was "loaned" to Suburban Express by another company and was not employed by Suburban Express, "but that's (Toeppen's) agent — and his own agent says what is alleged didn't happen."
Leval said he thinks Toeppen is now using the legal system to "harass" his son, after his son sounded off about the incident on the Internet.
"I think the judge unwittingly gave (Toeppen) an opportunity to use the system to pursue an agenda, which no logical person can figure out," Leval said after the hearing. "And unfortunately, this harassment will continue to hang over my son's head and other defendants'. ... I'm disappointed by it, but I will vigorously defend this case, and if (Toeppen) sees fit to bring it back, he will be met with appropriate resistance."