Abusive Truancy Policy in Lebanon, PA

Truancy is a real problem. Missing school undermines students’ educations, leading to increased dropout rates and ultimately harming the entire community.

Monique Groce and her son, Irvin. The 16 year old holds about 30 fines for himself and his sister.

But rather than confront the problem with a constructive policy that would actually get kids back in school, the Lebanon School District responded by adopting an abusive and counterproductive policy of levying exorbitant truancy fines – seemingly designed to push kids out rather than pull them back in. During the 2008-2009 school year alone, the District fined Lebanon parents over $500,000, more than ten times more per student than nearby Lancaster School District.

In addition to violating state law, these fines have led to parents being jailed, kids being sent to foster care, and high dropout rates. Meanwhile, the policy has totally failed to reduce truancy.

In January 2011, the Law Center and the Pennsylvania NAACP filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania against the Lebanon School District to compel the District to stop collecting and to repay truancy fines to 500 families. The complaint alleges that the fines set by the District exceed the $300 per citation state limit.

The Law Center and the plaintiffs in the case call on the Lebanon School District to adopt a constructive truancy plan that works with parents to address truancy – a system proven to be effective – rather than resorting to truancy fines.

Case Updates

Lebanon Parents will Finally Receive Reimbursement from School District for Truancy Fines

The Federal District Court in Harrisburg has officially approved a plan for the Lebanon School District to return more than $100,000 to parents for excessive truancy fines it collected. The court approved the settlement reached with the Law Center on behalf of the NAACP and over 300 parents who will receive refunds.

The approval by Chief Judge Yvette Kane on August 20, 2013 of the Settlement Agreement adopted by the District in February will allow the District to send out notices and claims forms to all persons who paid over $300 per single truancy fine according to court records. Information will also be available on the District and Law Center’s websites. Any parents who believe they are eligible for reimbursement and have moved should contact the District about a change of address. Parents will have six months to submit claims. The District will disperse payment following receipt of claims forms.

“We are very pleased that parents can now get the money they should have gotten a long time ago,” said Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. “Bill Dumas and the NAACP asked the District to fix this problem in 2009, and instead of fixing it back then, the District proceeded to waste the time of numerous parents and attorneys.” In approving the Settlement the Court noted that plaintiffs obtained all that they had sought in the suit.

Read the court order here.

Read the full press release here.

Settlement Approved

At an April 4th hearing Chief Judge Kane officially approved the Settlement Agreement in the Law Center’s class action suit against the Lebanon School District.

After short testimony by both sides, the Judge presented her ruling, commending the attorneys from Pepper Hamilton LLP for their involvement in the case and for ensuring through their pro bono work that this important case, which affects many families in need, was able to be heard before the court.

One of the named plaintiffs and a representative from the NAACP who was present at the hearing noted that the agreement is a significant achievement for the community and will allow affected families of students in the District who may be struggling financially to use the recuperated money on much-needed supports such as payments for health insurance or the purchase of food.

The Law Center’s successful work in halting the district’s abusive fines policy in combination with the approved Settlement Agreement will save parents of students in the Lebanon School District over $430,000 in fines including $108,000 in repayment to class members who already paid excessive fees. Class members have six months to submit claims for repayments and are being made aware of the repayment as part of the settlement.

Settlement Reached; Parents Saved Over $430,000 in Fines

The Law Center has successfully concluded its lawsuit against the Lebanon School District on behalf of parents who paid excessive truancy fines since 2004.Through a Settlement Agreement, the District will pay $108,000 to create a Class Restitution Fund, on top of the reduction of $325,000 in excessive fines by the courts following the litigation.The Settlement was approved by the District at its meeting Monday evening, February 18, 2013.

The lawsuit, brought in 2011 by the NAACP and four mothers who had paid fines in excess of the statutory maximum of $300 per fine, sought to end excessive truancy fines routinely imposed in favor of the District and to obtain return of any such amounts previously paid to the District. Although the District fought the lawsuit until the federal District Court ruled in November that the District had been unjustly enriched by keeping such payments, it has now agreed to repay any amounts paid over $300 per single truancy fines. Court records available to the parties show 248 persons are entitled to receive approximately $108,000.

The District also agreed to pay for notices to the class members, $9,000 to search for and locate class members who have moved, and $147,000 in attorneys fees and costs to the Law Center. The three remaining individual class representatives will receive up to $3,000 if there is any money left in the Restitution Fund because all class members cannot be found, and any remaining unpaid funds will be used by the District for programs to reduce truancy.

The next step in concluding the case will be a hearing in federal court to approve the settlement and then class members will have six months to submit claims. The court has already issued a preliminary approval of the settlement. Payments will be made within 45 days after the claims period has ended.

In addition to the $108,000 in repayments by the District, the case originally sought to have the District cooperate in reducing all unpaid fines. That part of the suit became moot when the two district magistrate courts reduced all of the outstanding unpaid fines in excess of $300. Those reductions totaled $325,000. “The community owes Bill Dumas, Letitia Fuentes Keith and the NAACP its thanks for saving parents from over $430,000 in illegal fines,” the Law Center’s Michael Churchill, attorney for the plaintiffs said. “It was their persistence which ended the harsh punitive truancy fines. The truancy fines last school year were less than half what they were three years earlier before the NAACP first raised this issue, and the number of citations filed by the District were down 20 percent. The District is still using truancy fines as a first resort rather than a last resort in dealing with truancy despite evidence that such tactics do not work, but the courts are starting to moderate that policy.”

Mr. Churchill noted that the federal court in November refused to grant the District’s request for judgment in its favor. “There were too many smoking gun documents contradicting District officials’ statements. The Court wanted a trial on what role District officials had played in creating and reducing the illegal fines. Plaintiffs were prepared to challenge the truthfulness of the District’s attendance officer, Robert Bowman. This Settlement allows the parties to avoid the expense of that trial and for the class members to get everything they had asked for in the Complaint without any further delay. We are very pleased with this Settlement and just wish it had occurred earlier.”

The Settlement was made possible by the generosity of the law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP which agreed to waive its fees and recovery of the costs it had paid in acting as lawyers for the Plaintiffs along with the Law Center.

Although the Settlement does not contain any finding or admission of wrongdoing by the District, the Plaintiffs did not want to delay reimbursement of money to the class members by insisting on holding a trial since they were already obtaining everything they had requested, Churchill said.

More information about the Settlement and payments to class members will be available in English and Spanish on the websites of the School District and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

Law Center’s Motion is Granted; District’s Motion is Denied

Both parties had filed separate motions for summary judgment.  On November 20, 2012, the District Court granted the Law Center’s motion on the state law claim for restitution, holding that all plaintiffs who overpaid are entitled to restitution.  The court also denied the district’s motion for summary judgment on the Law Center’s federal equal protection claim.  Even though this was a rational basis claim, with the lowest level of scrutiny, the court held that we had produced enough evidence to go to a jury.

Law Center Files Response to District’s Motion for Summary Judgment

The Law Center has filed a response to Lebanon School District’s motion for summary judgment. In its motion, the District argued that it cannot be held responsible for paying back fines because it was the courts, and no the District, that set them; that claims are time barred and therefore cannot be made on old citations; and that the PA NAACP is not a legitimate plaintiff in the case. In its response, the Law Center has noted that a summary judgment is only appropriate if the defendant proves “the absence of a genuine issue of material fact”, which the District has not done.

Contrary to what the District claims, there is evidence and testimony to support that the District played a role in the imposition and reduction of excessive truancy fines. In fact, the District filled out the amount of the fine on truancy slips until October 7, 2009. They were also quoted in court as saying “the District sets the fines according to the law.” These facts, along with many other testimonies and evidence, provide the material fact needed to dismiss the motion for summary judgment.

The District also argues that the plaintiffs’ claims are not valid because they were brought more than 30 days after the fines were assessed. However, plaintiffs are not challenging their convictions; they are challenging the fact that the District later reduced excessive fees for those who had not already paid, but refused to refund those who had. Therefore, the deadline imposed does not apply to this case.

Finally, the District claims that the NAACP does not have standing. However, this too is untrue because one of the NAACP’s members was fined excessive truancy fees, and because the organization itself has devoted time and resources in assisting parents with their excessive truancy fines.

Both Sides File for Summary Judgement

The Law Center, working in conjunction with The PA NAACP, has filed a motion for partial summary judgment on behalf of the plaintiffs. This motion, filed July 19, 2012, seeks restitution for excessive truancy fines already collected by the District from parents. Specifically, the motion asks that restitution be swiftly distributed only for those citations issued in excess of $300, totaling approximately $108,000. The facts are clear and indisputable that those citations were not lawfully collected and thus cannot be lawfully retained. Heedless of any wrongdoing on the behalf of the District, these funds belong with the parents upon whom they were illegally imposed, and the plaintiffs ask that the court acknowledge this and formulate a plan for rightful redistribution.

The Lebanon School District has also filed a motion for summary judgment. The District argues that it cannot be held legally responsible for paying back the fines because they were imposed by the court, not the District. The District further alleges that claims for citations issued more than three years ago exceed applicable state-imposed time limits. Finally, the District requests that the PA NAACP be removed as a plaintiff because there is no specific NAACP member that has a claim against the District.

Motion for Class Certification Granted

On Thursday June 28, 2012, Chief Judge Kane granted plaintiffs’ motion for class certification, giving the named plaintiffs the power to represent themselves and the 170 other families who paid $108,000 in illegal and excessive truancy fines In her opinion, Chief Judge Kane called the defendant’s position “quixotic” and stated that the defendant made no plausible arguments in support of this position.

Click here to read press articles about Judge Kane’s order.

100% of Unpaid Excessive Fines Reduced

Thanks to the Law Center’s intervention, all of the 1,052 excessive fines assessed since 2004 have now been reduced, saving the community over $450,000. Magistrate Judges have also continued to stop issuing fines in excess of $300, and the total fines imposed have decreased dramatically. These new practices will go a long way toward helping to ensure that families are able to effectively address truancy issues and keep their children in school.

The Law Center is now focusing on ensuring that the District repays parents who already paid the excessive fees they were charged – totaling $108,000. A trial on our motion for class certification is scheduled for June 21, 2012.

New Truancy Fines Down, Illegal Fines Partially Reduced

Analysis of court records in Lebanon shows that Magistrate Judges have stopped issuing truancy fines illegally in excess of $300 and have reduced 91% of the excessive fines originally imposed that were still outstanding. These actions have wiped out more than $450,000 in truancy fines owed by parents.

In the past year, the District has reduced the number of truancy summons it filed in court by 25%, and the fines this year total less than 43% the dollar amount of the fines imposed two years ago. Despite these positive developments, the District has continued to oppose repaying any of the excessive fines already paid to them, totaling about $108,000, and they have yet to adopt a constructive truancy policy.

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