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Court won’t hear city’s appeal in red-light camera lawsuit

A $38.75 million settlement has been proposed that would mean refunds to about 1.2 million motorists who were denied due process after being ticketed by city red-light or speed cameras. | File photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration suffered yet another setback Friday in its attempt to avoid refunding $200 million in fines and late fees issued to Chicagoans denied due process after being slapped with 1.5 million red-light and speed camera tickets.

The Illinois Appellate Court refused to hear the city’s appeal of a lower court decision certifying the high-stakes lawsuit as a class action.

The decision means that the case that could ultimately lead to refunds will continue before Circuit Court Judge Pamela McLean Meyerson.

That’s significant because it was McLean Meyerson’s now-retired predecessor Kathleen Kennedy who accused City Hall last year of violating the “fundamental principles of justice, equity and good conscience” by failing to send those drivers a second notice of their violations.

The judge said City Hall further erred by imposing $100 late fees when payment was not received within 21 days of a liability determination in some cases — even after the law was changed in 2012 to require a 25-day grace period.

Technically, Kennedy at that point simply rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the case and kept alive a lawsuit Zolna filed on behalf of a pair of ticketed motorists.

But the wording of her ruling was so strong, there was little doubt thousands of red-light and speed camera tickets issued since 2003 would ultimately be nullified.

Kennedy’s subsequent ruling certifying the lawsuit as a class-action was a pivotal next step. Friday’s ruling keeps the class intact.

“The city said, `Look at the case. This class has no merit. It shouldn’t be a class-action. But, the Appellate Court said, `Thanks, but no thanks.’ They took a pass,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Jacie Zolna.

“If the Appellate Court had agreed to hear the appeal, it would have significantly delayed a case that very likely will result in all of these tickets being wiped off the books.”

“The city has always maintained that these tickets are valid, and we will continue to vigorously defend against this suit,” Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said Friday night.

Last fall, the City Council approved Emanuel’s plan to give 1.5 million impacted motorists a second chance to challenge their tickets.

But Zolna filed yet another lawsuit challenging the do-over on grounds that it violates “virtually every procedural requirement” of the Illinois Vehicle Code and “completely undermines its purpose to ensure the ‘fair and efficient’ adjudication” of speed and red light camera violations. That case continues before the same judge.

Meanwhile, the city’s notices to the impacted motorists has caused “mass confusion,” Zolna said. That’s because the city’s letter ignores the pending legal case that could invalidate the very tickets the city is attempting to re-adjudicate. It was not known how many motorists have taken the city up on its offer of a re-hearing.

Retiring Corporation Counsel Steve Patton has argued that the do-over hearings would “bolster our defense” of the pending lawsuit and “form the basis for a fair and reasonable settlement.” But he has emphatically maintained that a “procedural failure does not render a ticket invalid” and that there is no justification for blanket refunds.

“Those tickets are valid. The violation occurred. The red light was run. Somebody sped,” Patton told aldermen last month. “What we’re talking about is a subsequent procedural error. And it shouldn’t be the opportunity for a gotcha to have a windfall for thousands and thousands of people to avoid any liability and get a refund.”