Suburban Express wants to refile some of its cases

PAXTON — A Champaign charter bus service that filed 126 small-claims cases in Ford County — only later to drop most of them amid a backlash from University of Illinois students named as defendants — is now asking the court to allow some of the cases to be reinstated.

But the president of the company said the cases will not be refiled in Ford County Circuit Court.

“I imagine that most/all of our new cases will be filed in Champaign County, so that any students we pursue have access to Student Legal Services and can feel that they have a reasonable opportunity to defend their fraudulent activities,” said Dennis E. Toeppen of Champaign, president of the bus service, Suburban Express Inc.

The lawsuits, many against UI students, were for alleged violations of the company’s “terms and conditions” that each passenger must agree to before buying a ticket online. The terms and conditions had designated Ford County as the venue for any legal action that arose.

One issue raised by UI students was that because the cases were filed in Ford County, the many students named as defendants were not eligible to receive free representation from the UI’s Student Legal Services, which only offers such assistance for cases filed in Champaign County.

Of the 126 cases, 103 were dismissed “with prejudice” on April 30, meaning Suburban Express is barred from filing another case on the same claim. One day earlier, seven other Suburban Express cases were dismissed. Six others had been dismissed earlier this year.

But on May 28, motions were filed to vacate 22 of the dismissals with prejudice.

“I believe the motions seek to change case status from ‘dismissed with prejudice’ to ‘dismissed without prejudice’ ...,” Toeppen said.

If the motions are granted, Suburban Express plans to refile the cases in another county, Toeppen said. He noted that “we do not desire to litigate any of the cases in Ford County” and “we will not necessarily litigate all of these (dismissed) cases.”

Separate motions were also filed May 28 in the same 22 cases seeking a substitution of attorneys for Suburban Express. The company is asking the court to change its attorney to the law firm Bellas & Wachowski of Park Ridge.

Suburban Express had previously been represented by two law firms  based in Champaign: the Meyer Capel law firm and the Chapin & Long law firm.

The cases that Suburban Express is seeking to reinstate seek damages ranging from $68.59 to $629.95, plus court costs and attorney fees.

Earlier this year, Colleen Ramais, an attorney from the Meyer Capel law firm, said some of the cases involved students buying their tickets online, then printing out multiple copies of the tickets and allowing others to use them. Another issue was students using tickets on the incorrect dates, or altering the dates listed on the printed copy, she said.

Alain Leval, an attorney whose son Jeremy Leval, a UI student, is named as one of the defendants, said last week that he contacted the attorney who filed the motion to reinstate his son’s case and indicated to him that the “subject of the complaint is totally without merit both in law and fact.” He said “any further pursuit of this case would be for the sole purpose of harassment.”

Tim Knudsen, a University of Illinois law student from Wheaton who serves as student body vice president external, said “the fact that Suburban Express may be attempting to re-open these lawsuits is extremely bizarre and frustrating.

“Students do not deserve to float in legal limbo for these alleged small infractions. As always, the Illinois Student Senate will not overlook the exploitation of students. ... If the facts show that Suburban Express is exploiting students, the ISS will act in whatever capacity we are fit, and can be effective.”

Toeppen said this spring that the cases were filed in Ford County — even though none of the defendants live there or bought a Suburban Express bus ticket there — “because of the wide open court calendar, easy parking and service with a smile.” 

The terms and conditions of purchasing tickets have since been revised to reflect no mention of Ford County as the venue for legal action.

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