A lawsuit that left Bucks County taxpayers on the hook for as much as $67 million to $68 million has been settled for significantly less.
The county confirmed the agreement, which still has to be accepted by a federal district judge in Philadelphia. The deal would see the county pay between $7.5 million and $14 million to settle the class-action case. Under the deal, the county would devote new funding to obtaining expungements and/or addiction treatment services for clients of the Bucks County Public Defender’s Office if less than $10 million in claims are paid out.
Both the county and the attorneys on the other side have agreed to the settlement.
The high-price judgement had been appealed by the county and was sent to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit before both parties agreed to send the case back to U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone as part of the settlement.
Last May in federal court in Philadelphia, a jury found that Bucks County and the county correctional facility wrongfully violated the Criminal History Records Information Act, commonly called CHRIA. The class-action lawsuit alleged that county did not handle inmate information properly.
The jury awarded $67 million to $68 million in punitive damages. Each CHRIA violation totaled $1,000. The amount was much smaller than the $670 million in damages that could have been awarded. The figure came from the roughly 67,000 people reportedly impacted by the CHRIA violation, dating back decades.
The settlement states those who qualify as members of the class impacted will receive $600, a reduction from the $1,000 originally ordered by the court, according to court papers.
As the county did not have proper insurance, any amount it owed would come out of its general funds. If the preliminary total of $67 to $68 million was owed, it would be a major financial blow to the county’s finances.
In a statement, the county admitted they “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.”
Starting with the new set of Bucks County Commissioners in January, Chairperson Diane Ellis-Marseglia, Vice Chairperson Bob Harvie, and Gene DiGirolamo began seeking ways to mitigate the financial burden from the lawsuit that hung over the government.
Bucks County Solicitor Joe Khan and outside attorneys assisting the county on the case were given the directive to attempt to end the case. Federal mediation talks began in February with Third Circuit Chief Mediator Joseph Torregrossa and resulted in the agreement filed Tuesday morning.
In a statement, the commissioners thanked the legal team for their work in settling the “potentially crippling lawsuit.”
“In all likelihood, this resolution will not only save the taxpayers from tens of millions of dollars more in costs,” said Ellis-Marseglia, “it will also help fund needed treatment and expungement services for our Public Defender’s Office.”
The commissioners are expected to approve the agreement at their regular meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
Details on how the county will pay the $7.5 million to $14 million were not released.
The county said taxpayers had paid $2 million in outside attorney fees on the eight-year-long case as of Tuesday. Fees would only continue to build if the appeal continued and if the judgement stuck. In their statement, the county noted legal fees and related costs for the case were expected to drive the overall cost tens of millions of dollars higher than the $67 or $68 million judgement.
The lawsuit was first filed in late 2012 on behalf of Daryoush Taha, of Sicklerville, New Jersey, who was arrested by Bensalem authorities in 1998 and had his arrest expunged in 2000.
“We are pleased the parties have reached a proposed settlement and look forward to presenting this to the Court for approval,” said Taha’s attorney Jonathan Shub, of Kohn, Swift & Graf P.C.
The lawyers representing Taha and the class-action members will receive no more than $4 million. Taha will get a service award of $30,000.The court found that Bucks County violated CHRIA by posting Taha’s mugshot and information about his case on a searchable database that previously was housed on the Bucks County Department Of Corrections website. The “Inmate Lookup Tool” database, which was often used by the media in addition to the public, showed records of those booked at the Bucks County Correctional Facility in Doylestown Township.
Taha was arrested by Bensalem police in September 1998. He later took part in a pre-trial diversion program for first-time nonviolent offenders. At the completion of the program in January 2000, now-retired Bucks County Judge Barry McAndrews issued an order directing police and other agencies it made the record available for to expunge the arrest and criminal record for Taha within 30 days.
After learning about his arrest information being put online by the county several years ago, Taha filed his lawsuit. Shortly after, the county removed the lookup tool, telling media it was being placed offline due to a legal challenge.
As the case worked its way through the courts, the lawsuit was given class-action status in 2016.