CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois Attorney General’s Office is getting more time to pay out compensation to former customers of now-shuttered bus company Suburban Express.
The office requested the extension after demand for the up-to-$20 payouts was “far greater than anticipated,” Assistant Attorney General Alison V. Hill wrote in August. More than 8,600 people filled out claim forms.
Suburban Express shut down in May, a month after it reached an agreement with the attorney general’s office and about a year after it was sued by the state for alleged discrimination against and harassment of its customers.
Under the agreement, Suburban Express had 180 days to pay the state $100,000, at which point the attorney general had another 180 days to distribute the funds to claimants.
Because Suburban Express made the payment in May, five months earlier than the attorney general’s office anticipated, Hill said, it faced a Nov. 15 deadline to pay out the money.
However, thanks to a decision Thursday by Judge Andrea R. Wood, it now has until April 3, 2020, to make the payments. That will be 180 days after this Sunday’s deadline for customers to file for a refund.
If all of the claims made so far are approved, each payee would get about $11.50, according to the attorney general’s office, which has never said how it is evaluating the requests.
Anyone who used the service since April 23, 2014, is eligible to request a refund payment through a form on the Suburban Express website.
Owner Dennis Toeppen opposed giving the state more time, calling the early deadline “an apparent result of inattention to detail” by the attorney general’s office “that it now regrets.”
He said he made the $100,000 payment “as soon as possible to accelerate closure and accelerate the termination of stressful events relating to this litigation.”
Under the consent decree reached earlier this year, Suburban Express and Toeppen are subject to three years of monitoring, must take anti-discrimination training each year and are required to have copies of all advertisements and complaints against the company available for review by the attorney general’s office every 180 days.
Toeppen asked this week to eliminate the training requirement, and Wood said she’d consider it.
Suburban Express was also required to post an anti-discrimination notice on its website and barred from retaliating against anyone seeking a payment.
After the agreement was reached, the attorney general’s office alleged Toeppen quickly violated it. The state seeks to have an additional $20,000 fine levied for the alleged violation.
That complaint is still pending before Wood.
The state’s lawsuit stemmed from an email advertisement Toeppen sent in December 2017 saying Suburban Express’ benefits included “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”
A swift backlash was followed by Toeppen’s apologies, but a subpoena was soon sent by the state, which sought to determine if Suburban Express had violated the Illinois Human Rights Act.
Then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a 39-page lawsuit against the company in April 2018, attaching 182 pages of exhibits filled with screenshots of Yelp comments on negative reviews, Suburban Express’ notorious “Page of Shame,” emails, copies of the email advertisements, a copy of the contract customers must agree to, and an internal list of banned customers.
Suburban Express allegedly denied credit cards from ZIP codes coinciding with large 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 by saying “No Engrish.”
Toeppen has called the allegations “false, unproven, unproveable and legally inconsequential” and said he agreed to the consent degree because he felt like he “was being extorted by the state.”
He said he shut his company down because “I stopped enjoying this business around 2001, and I think it’s beginning to show.”