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District Misses the Mark in Truancy Fine Dispute

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) - Parents who claim the Lebanon School District grossly overfined them for their childrens' truancy can move forward with a class action, a federal judge ruled.

The district had moved to dismiss, claiming it is not the proper defendant and that the parents had failed to state a claim. Chief U.S. District Judge Yvette Kane disagreed last week, saying the district "fundamentally mistconstrues" the nature of the claims in the action and "raised no arguments either in its motion to dismiss or in its objections ... challenging the claims [the parents] actually raise."

Partnering with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the parents filed suit in January, claiming that the Lebanon School District violated their rights to equal protection and due process by collecting excessive truancy fines.

Between July 1, 2004, and June 30, 2009, the district violated state law truancy fine limits by issuing 935 fines in excess of $300, according to the complaint. At least 178 fines allegedly exceeded $1,000, with some climbing to $9,000. The district accepted and retained at least 323 of the excessive fines, adding up to a minimum total of $107,000, according to the complaint.

Though the district "sought and obtained a downward adjustment of at least 340 fines" in 2010, the parents and the NAACP claimed "that at least 273 of the illegal fines that still have outstanding balances were excluded from the adjustments."

The adjustments allegedly did not affect a single fine already paid in full, rather affecting "solely those fines with outstanding balances due."

Parents say the district has yet to notify them of a procedure to seek adjustment, and it has not offered them any restitution of excessive amounts already paid.

Judge Kane's decision to let the parents pursue their claims aligns with a magistrate judge's recommendation from July.

The district claimed that U.S. Magistrate Judge Mildred Methvin's report "failed to take notice of the fact that only the courts, and not the school district, have authority to issue and/or collect fines in truancy matters."

Kane agreed with Methvin, however, that the parents "did not challenge the imposition of fines, but rather... [the] decision to request a reduction of only some of the excessive fines." The district's argument failed "to confront the substance" of the parents' complaint, Kane added.

"As noted by Magistrate Judge Methvin, the complaint does not challenge the imposition of fines," she wrote. "Rather, plaintiffs challenge, inter alia, defendant's actions in 'selectively seeking reduction of statutorily excessive fines,' 'using undisclosed criteria to determine which excessive fines imposed would be selected for adjustment,' and the failure 'to provide plaintiffs and plaintiff class members with any opportunity to establish whether fines imposed on them met the criteria."

Methvin properly found that the parents and the NAACP have a "plausible claim that such actions are procedurally instituted by the district, and the district plays an active role in truancy adjudication," according to the Nov. 16 decision.

District officials had also argued that parents could not prove equal-protection violations since there were "no facts from which discriminatory intent can be inferred," and because the parents cannot show they "were treated differently from similarly situated individuals on the basis of any protected class."

Again Kane sided with Methvin, saying the parents "pleaded sufficient facts to support a finding that similarly situated individuals were treated differently and that no rational basis exists for the distinction between the excessive fines that were reduced and those that were not."

Though the district claimed that there was a lack of property interest, Kane said that argument was "completely unsupported" because money is the property interest that was allegedly violated.

The fact that truancy actions are summary criminal proceedings furthermore does not require the parents to establish a lack of probable cause, Kane added. But the parents have taken aim at the district's decision to "selectively seek reduction of only a fraction of the statutorily excessive fines," so the district has failed "to articulate any reason to support a finding that probable cause is a defense to such an action."

"Each of defendant's arguments assume that plaintiffs have challenged the imposition of the statutorily excessive fines," the 10-page decision states. "They have not. Rather, plaintiffs challenge defendant's actions in selectively seeking to reduce only a fraction of the fines imposed that exceeded the statutory maximum. Defendant has raised no arguments either in its motion to dismiss or in its objections to Magistrate Judge Methvin's Report and Recommendation challenging the claims plaintiffs actually raise."

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