Cook County Record

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Objector: 'Collusive' Chicago red light camera class action deal pays lawyers too much, lets city off cheap

By Jonathan Bilyk | Dec 13, 2017

Chicago city hall

Saying the deal “reeks of a collusive settlement” that will give millions to lawyers and next to nothing for law-abiding residents who dutifully paid their $100 fines, an attorney, who is pressing his own class action case seeking to “dismantle” Chicago’s red light camera program, has filed an objection asking a Cook County judge to undue a settlement Chicago city officials have said they hope will allow City Hall to bring class action litigation over the red light camera program to a relatively inexpensive end.

On Dec. 11, attorney Patrick Keating, of the firm of Roberts McGivney Zagotta LLC, of Chicago, filed a motion on behalf of a woman, identified as Maureen P. Sullivan, objecting to the city’s proposed $38 million settlement designed to end one of the class action lawsuits faced by the city over its controversy-plagued red light camera traffic enforcement program.

“Class Counsel are selling a ‘settlement’ that lets the City administer its claim submission and payment process, that provides class members no data to determine, or even estimate, how much they will receive for their $100 ticket payments,” Keating wrote in the motion. “The deal is evidently structured so that that the crowed-about refund of half of monies paid will only apply if a small fraction of class members, faced with an opaque notice and a disinterested class action administrator, submit their claim forms in the short time allowed, upon a single notice and using a non postage-paid return envelope.

“With checks that go void in 60 days.” (sic)

In July, the Chicago City Council voted to approve the settlement. The deal had been described as an “unprecedented” win for Chicago residents and others who were made to pay fines of $100 per violation after receiving tickets for being photographed by a red light camera posted at various intersections throughout the city.

City officials also hailed the deal as a way to minimize the potential blow to taxpayers, compared to how much the city may have been made to pay, should the case have proceeded to trial and a judgment had been entered against the city.

That settlement had itself followed a ruling in late 2016 from a Cook County judge, who had determined the case, brought by attorneys Myron Cherry and Jacie Zolna, of Myron Cherry & Associates, of Chicago, should be expanded to include a class of additional plaintiffs numbering conservatively in the hundreds of thousands who had received a red light camera ticket, but had received only one violation notice, while the city ordinance had required a second notice be sent before the city began assessing additional fines and fees for unpaid tickets.

Under the terms of the deal, the city pledged to pay $15 million into a fund to be used to refund up to half of the cost of the fines paid by those who had received red light tickets. The city also pledged to not use the tickets when determining whose vehicles to “boot” or tow for unpaid fines; the city estimated this aspect of the settlement, held out as a debt forgiveness package, would be worth an additional $12 million.

And the city also agreed to not contest the Cherry firm’s plan to ask the court to pay attorney fees of nearly $12 million more.

As the deal moves toward final approval, Keating filed an objection asking the court to undo or rework the deal to make it more friendly to those who paid their fines.

In the motion, Keating assails virtually every aspect of the deal, saying, on one hand, the deal goes “way too far” in allowing the city to essentially escape the litigation on the cheap, paying 10 percent or less of damages a court could have ordered, while also effectively short-circuiting other class actions now pending in Illinois courts over the red light camera program.

Keating is representing a group of plaintiffs challenging not just procedural errors, but the very legal basis underlying the red light camera program. That case was dismissed by a Cook County judge, but has been appealed.

Keating noted the Cherry firm lawyers were aware of his other case, saying they specifically asked the court to not consolidate their case with his, yet executed their deal, knowing the settlement could be used by the city to attempt to negate any other class actions, as most class members in other cases would be covered by the terms of the settled case.

On the other hand, however, Keating said the deal doesn’t go far enough, as it could leave potential class members with far less than refunds worth even half of the fines they paid – potentially as little as $7 each, depending on how many ticket recipients file claims for refunds. And even those payments could be sidestepped under an “opaque” claims process overseen by the city, who would issue refunds using checks allowed to expire 60 days after issuance.

But at the same time, Keating said the deal gives the Cherry firm nearly $12 million, which he said amounts to 43 percent of the total settlement amount, when the “nearly worthless debt extinguishment” estimate is excluded from the calculation.

“Maureen Sullivan submits that the payments to class members would need to be much higher to support such a fee, if such a payment can ever be justified with reference to the lodestar in this case,” Keating wrote in the objection.

Specifically, in the objection, Keating asks the court to order the settlement be revised “clarifying the language … that might affect or limit the rights of her and thousands of others to pursue their remedies” in the other class action case, and order the settlement be “modified to be more substantively and procedurally adequate and fairer to Class Members.”

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Organizations in this Story

Roberts McGivney Zagotta LLCMyron M. Cherry & Associates, LLCCircuit Court of Cook CoCity of Chicago