DOYLESTOWN >> Attorneys for Bucks County on May 19 announced the filing of documents in U.S. District Court seeking a taxpayer-minded settlement of the longstanding Taha v. County of Bucks class action litigation that the current administration inherited.
The terms of the settlement, subject to approval by U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone, would reduce the county’s liability to a fraction of the potential nine-figure payout it faced in damages, legal costs and interest fees in the long-running civil suit.
Under the agreement, the county could pay as little as $7.5 million in claims and legal fees, and no more than $14 million, eliminating the need for taking austere measures to cover the county’s obligations. If less than $10 million in claims is paid out, the county will dedicate new funding to provide expungement or treatment services to clients of its Public Defender’s Office.
Opposing counsel have agreed to the settlement, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on May 15 granted a joint motion to partially remand the case to Judge Beetlestone for approval.
On May 28, 2019, a federal jury found that Bucks County had willfully violated Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act by placing protected criminal history information online in its inmate lookup tool. The case had been certified as a class-action matter representing some 68,000 people who had been incarcerated in Bucks County as long ago as 1938.
No plaintiffs were found to have suffered economic harm, but $1,000 in punitive damages were assessed for every member of the class, for a potential $68 million award. Legal fees and other costs were expected to drive that amount tens of millions of dollars higher.
The county – which has spent roughly $2 million on outside attorney fees to date – did not have any law enforcement liability insurance at the time of the lawsuit nor did it have cash reserves sufficient to pay a $68 million judgment even before legal fees and other costs.
When Commissioners Diane M. Ellis-Marseglia, Bob Harvie and Gene DiGirolamo took office on January 6, they took immediate steps to address the looming risks posed by this lawsuit. After appointing Joe Khan as county solicitor, they directed him and outside counsel to engage in mediation to bring an end to this eight-year litigation.
Those sessions began Feb. 4 before Third Circuit Chief Mediator Joseph Torregrossa, resulting in a final agreement reached over the last week.
The commissioners praised Khan and his legal team, saying that through their diligent work, “a potentially crippling lawsuit has been tentatively settled.”
“In all likelihood," Marseglia said, "this resolution will not only save the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars more in costs, but it will also help fund needed treatment and expungement services for our Public Defender’s Office.”
The commissioners are scheduled to officially vote to approve the terms of the settlement at their regular meeting on May 20.