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 agreement. 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.