A Cook County judge could grant final approval later this week to a settlement deal intended to end a class action lawsuit against Chicago City Hall over the city’s red-light traffic camera enforcement program.
For now, the lawyers behind that lawsuit are defending their request for more than $11 million in fees for their work in securing $38.75 million in cash, millions more in debt relief to those who owe fines and fees under the program, and an agreement from the city to stop the practices that gave rise to the settlement – a deal the lawyers, in a legal brief filed last week, called “a huge opportunity for a lot of people to get out of serious trouble.”
On Feb. 9, Cook County Circuit Judge Pamela McLean Meyerson is expected to consider whether to formally sign off on the settlement agreement presented to her by lawyers for the class of plaintiffs and City Hall.
On Jan. 30, the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Myron Cherry and Jacie Zolna, of the law firm of Myron M. Cherry & Associates, of Chicago, and Antonio Romanucci, of the firm of Romanucci & Blandin, of Chicago, submitted a memorandum, backing their motion for final approval of the settlement, calling the “benefits” of the settlement to “hundreds of thousands” of people who had received tickets under the city’s red light program “substantial and unprecedented.”
The lawsuit had been filed on behalf of more than 1.1 million people who were made to pay fines of $100 per violation under the red light camera program, even though they did not receive two notices and given the proper amount of time to contest the tickets before late fees and other costs were tacked on, as required under the city’s red light camera ordinance.
They particularly trumpeted the response to the settlement from the public, noting nearly 449,000 people submitted claims for reimbursement under the settlement, amounting to about 40 percent of those eligible to potentially participate in the settlement.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers said those submitting claims were in line to receive an average of $58.50 under the settlement, and others could receive substantially more relief, particularly under the settlement’s debt forgiveness program. They said a “typical” class member, who owed $244 to the city for the original ticket, plus late fees and administrative costs, would end up owing only about $22 for the citation.
And they noted the settlement bars the city from using the tickets at the heart of the settlement from being used by the city to boot class members’ cars or revoke drivers licenses.
While class members actually still collectively owed more than $137 million in violations and fees, the lawyers said the court should approve the settlement, in part, because it represented the first time a class action against the city over its red light traffic enforcement program resulted in any kind of relief at all.
“Most class members are elated someone took on the city and actually won,” the lawyers wrote in a separate brief.
However, at least one member of the class has objected to the settlement, and her lawyer has asked the court to toss it out, or at least trim the size of the payout headed to lawyers, and reapportion some of that money to help class members get even bigger checks themselves.
In December, attorney Patrick Keating, of the firm of Roberts McGivney Zagotta, of Chicago, filed an objection to the settlement on behalf of a litigant identified as Maureen P. Sullivan, asserting the settlement was evidence of collusion between the city and plaintiffs’ lawyers, letting the city escape with most of the money it had taken from class members, and giving the lawyers too large a share of the funds.
Keating reasserted that stance in a brief filed Jan. 31, again claiming the settlement in the structure was designed in such a way to enable the city to use the settlement to attempt to shut down other class actions now pending, or yet to come, which attempt to not rectify some administrative missteps, but rather shut down the entire red-light camera program.
Keating is currently representing clients in such a case. A Cook County judge dismissed that lawsuit, but it has been appealed.
Keating claimed the settlement would generate a cash refund amounting to less than 7 percent of the $224 million paid by class members eligible for the settlement funds, which he said places the lawyers’ interests “ahead of their erstwhile clients’.”
Should the judge not agree to reject the settlement, Keating urged judge to order the settlement to include language specifically prohibiting the city from attempting to use the settlement to thwart other red-light camera class actions, including the one he is litigating, and to modify the fee award for the plaintiffs’ lawyers to $5.4 million to $6.69 million, depending on the method the judge might use to calculate the fee award.
“That would more than fairly compensate Class Counsel for the investment,” while making an additional $5 million to $6 million “cash available to class members,” Keating wrote.
In a response to Keating’s objections, however, plaintiffs’ lawyers defended their fee request, saying it was particularly fair when judged against the amount of debt relief and other “not inconsequential” non-monetary legal relief the settlement secures for class members.
“The treat and relentless collection of unpaid tickets is a serious issue, one that was exacerbated by the city’s practices of speeding up liability determinations and prematurely doubling late payment penalties,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote. “It was an evil that had the potential to – and did – ruin people’s lives.”