CHAMPAIGN — Thirty-five years after starting a bus company to take on Greyhound, Suburban Express owner Dennis Toeppen faces a federal lawsuit from the Illinois Attorney General seeking to shut down his company for alleged discrimination and harassment against its customers.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said she hopes the lawsuit and motion for a temporary restraining order she filed Monday force Toeppen and Suburban Express to either comply with the law or go out of business.
"My lawsuit alleges that Suburban Express has long been engaged in illegal discrimination and harassment against college students in Illinois, particularly University of Illinois students and their families," Madigan said at a press conference Monday in Chicago.
The lawsuit alleges that Suburban Express has discriminated against customers from China or other Asian countries through its advertisements, including one sent in December that listed its benefits, including, "Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses."
That email ad was condemned by University of Illinois and other officials for being racist. Days after it was released, Madigan issued a subpoena for documents, records and information that would help determine whether the company’s policies and practices violated the Illinois Human Rights Act, which states that public accommodations cannot be denied to a person or group of people based on certain factors, including race and national origin.
Suburban Express apologized for its ad, and later for its apology, which had also been criticized.
Toeppen said Monday he is reviewing the complaint.
"We take this unfounded assault on our reputation seriously and we intend to defend this lawsuit vigorously," he said in an email to News-Gazette Media.
UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said she isn’t surprised by the allegations.
"These are the types of accounts our students have been reporting to us for quite some time, and they match the interactions many of us have had with this organization," Kaler said in an email. "Marketing efforts that are offensive, bigoted and insulting are in direct opposition to the values of the university."
The lawsuit alleges that Suburban Express and Toeppen have violated various state and federal laws protecting customers and their civil rights and seeks an order requiring Suburban Express to pay "compensatory and punitive damages." That includes up to $10,000 "for each act of unlawful discrimination" under the Illinois Human Rights Act and up to $50,000 "per deceptive act or unfair practice and an additional amount of $50,000 for each act or practice found to have been committed with intent to defraud" under the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act.
182 pages of exhibits
The 39-page complaint details various alleged acts of discrimination by Suburban Express and Toeppen, including denying credit cards from ZIP codes with high Jewish populations, instructing employees to avoid handing out coupons to certain students who appeared not to speak English well, and recording a YouTube video in a UI dorm while complaining about the lack of English speakers and mocking Asian accents, saying "No Engrish."
The lawsuit also takes aim at the company for allegedly attacking customers on Yelp, on its "Page of Shame," and through "scores of lawsuits" filed in an inconvenient location (Ford County) while failing to redact customers’ private information.
"He has also created and maintains pages on his website dedicated to smearing individual customers with horrible insults, including ‘slimeball’ and ‘dishonest little scumbag,’" Madigan said. "His posts often include a person’s home address, email and phone number, and in some cases also includes pictures of the customers and their homes."
The lawsuit includes 182 pages of exhibits filled with screenshots of Yelp comments on negative reviews, the Page of Shame, an internal list of banned customers, copies of the email advertisements, emails, and a copy of the contract customers must agree to.
This contract says, "Online disparagement will not resolve any problem you may have, and it may lead us to refuse your future business," according to a screenshot included in the lawsuit.
Toeppen fires back
The lawsuit alleges that this language violates the U.S. Consumer Review Protection Statute, which prevents form contracts from prohibiting reviews.
"This form contract language is not simply an idle threat," the lawsuit says, citing Suburban Express’ ban on certain customers for negative reviews on Yelp, Reddit and other websites.
Toeppen said his pushback on negative reviews doesn’t "constitute harassment."
The complaint "seems to largely criticize instances where we have fought back against false claims made on review sites and by online detractors. Defending ourselves against online harassment does not constitute harassment of the harasser," he said.
He said that "the complaint also seems to demonstrate a lack of any sense of humor on the part of Attorney General Madigan. Tongue-in-cheek posts like the picture of the bowing passengers cannot reasonably be inferred to mean that we have something against certain customers."
He is referring to a September 2017 advertisement showing a picture of passengers bowing with the caption "Bowing Not Required."
The lawsuit alleges that this ad "singled out people of Asian origin for ridicule."