Suburban Express reaches consent decree with Illinois attorney general

Suburban Express reaches consent decree with Illinois attorney general

CHAMPAIGN — About a year after then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued Suburban Express and its owner, Dennis Toeppen, for alleged discrimination and harassment of its customers, the company has reached a consent decree subjecting it to three years of monitoring.

It also has to pay the Illinois attorney general $100,000 and agree not to discriminate or harass its customers, the attorney general’s office said Tuesday.

The $100,000 will be used to offer refunds to Suburban Express customers who’ve ridden the buses since April 23, 2014. Eligible customers will be able to seek a refund of up to $20 by filling out a form on the Suburban Express website beginning April 30, according to the consent decree.

Suburban Express will have to include a link to this form on its homepage, on ticket confirmation emails and in marketing emails.

And it can’t retaliate against customers who seek a refund.

The company will also have to put an anti-discrimination note on its website, emails, buses and advertisements.

To ensure compliance, Toeppen and his employees will have to take an anti-discrimination class each year and keep copies of all complaints and advertisements for review by the attorney general’s office every 180 days.

If the attorney general’s office believes Suburban Express isn’t in compliance, it can seek relief from the court.

New attorney general Kwame Raoul thinks the consent decree will stop the alleged harassment and discrimination.

“This consent decree brings an end to Mr. Toeppen’s reprehensible business practices and ensures that students receive fair and equal access to Suburban Express’s services,” he said in a statement.

Toeppen could not be reached for comment.

The attorney general’s lawsuit stemmed from an email advertisement Suburban Express sent in December 2017 saying its benefits included “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”

That led to a swift backlash, apologies and a subpoena from the attorney general’s office to determine whether Suburban Express had violated the Illinois Human Rights Act.

Madigan then filed a 39-page lawsuit in April last year, attaching 182 pages of exhibits filled with screenshots of Yelp comments on negative reviews, Suburban Express’ Page of Shame, an internal list of banned customers, emails, copies of the email advertisements and a copy of the contract customers must agree to.

Suburban Express allegedly denied credit cards from ZIP codes with high Jewish populations, instructed employees to avoid handing out coupons to certain students who appeared not to speak English well and recorded a YouTube video in a UI dorm while complaining about the lack of English speakers and mocking Asian accents, saying “No Engrish.”

When the lawsuit was filed, Madigan said she wanted to force Suburban Express and Toeppen to either comply with the law or be shut down.

The lawsuit sought $50,000 per deceptive act or unfair practice, an additional $50,000 per deceptive act or unfair practice committed with the intent to defraud, $10,000 for offenses against people older than 65 and up to $10,000 per defendant for each unlawful act of discrimination.

After the lawsuit was filed, Suburban Express and Toeppen agreed to a temporary restraining order requiring the company to remove personally identifying information from its website, stop retaliating against customers for negative reviews and remove language from its contract prohibiting negative reviews.

The two sides spent months negotiating a settlement, though not without some roadblocks.

Last September, Toeppen’s lawyer withdrew from the case, citing unpaid fees and a strategic impasse, and an attorney was appointed to negotiate a settlement.

Then in November, the attorney general’s office asked for a default judgment against Suburban Express and accused it of stalling.

This kept being delayed until last month, when the attorney general’s office again sought a default judgment, saying “Settlement discussions between the parties have broken down.”

This apparently caught Toeppen’s attention, and a settlement hearing was held April 1.

The consent decree was approved late Tuesday afternoon by U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood, terminating the case.

Besides the lawsuit from the attorney general, Suburban Express faces lawsuits from its insurance companies, which are seeking declaratory judgments that they correctly denied coverage for damages resulting from Madigan’s lawsuit.

These cases appear to still be ongoing.

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