Fairview Heights releases settlements, questions remain about attorneys' fees

Amelia Flood May 28, 2009, 11:42am



Settlement documents released Wednesday show that the city of Fairview Heights netted about $315,000 in its four year legal battle with 13 online travel companies.

While city officials have said that the companies paid the city's legal fees as part of the settlements, the agreements obtained by the Record indicate each party was to bear its own legal costs.

The Record requested the settlement agreements under the state's Freedom of Information Act May 7. The paper also has requested documents related to what, if anything, the city paid to lawyers pursuing the legal action. The paper has received no documents that relate to attorneys' fees other than the settlement agreements.

Fairview Heights sued 13 online travel companies in 2004, claiming it and other Illinois municipalities were being cheated out of hotel-motel taxes. The city originally tried to have its case certified as a class action. A federal judge denied class certification, leaving Fairview Heights free to pursue individual claims against companies like Orbitz, Priceline, Expedia, Travelocity and others.

All of the defendants settled. Orbitz and its subsidiaries were the last to settle in March.

According to Barbara Mackin of the Fairview Heights Treasurer's office, the city has only received a check for about $57,000 from Orbitz, to her knowledge.

Mackin said the City Clerk could have records relating to the other settlement checks and/or attorneys' fees. A message left at the City Clerk's office was not returned as of press time.

Under the settlements, none of the online travel companies admit fault. Fairview Heights has agreed not to bring suit against any of the defendants for 10 years upon receiving the settlement payments. The city will not consider them hotel operators under the city's current ordinances.

Fairview Heights and all the defendants agreed to bear their own costs, the settlement documents state.

According to the settlement documents, Orbitz and its subsidiaries would pay $50,000, however the city received a check from Orbitz for $56,733.68. Priceline and its related companies would pay $60,000. Expedia defendants would pay the most at $105,000, while Travelocity would pay $100,000.

The amount of money the city stands to gain in its four-year battle with the companies, $315,000, is 54 percent of what the city collected in hotel-motel room taxes during the last fiscal year.

Fairview Heights took in $586,615.05 in hotel-motel room taxes in the fiscal year ending April 30, 2009.

The question of what the city paid in attorneys' fees, if anything, is still unanswered.

City attorney Al Paulson and Kevin Hoerner of Becker, Paulson, Hoerner and Thompson, PC, pursued the legal action against the online travel companies, along with Richard Burke of St. Louis.

Fairview Heights Mayor Gail Mitchell said via telephone Thursday that he did not recall any payments to the attorneys over the matter.

"To the best of my knowledge, it didn't cost us a thing," Mitchell said. He said that the City Clerk's office would have any records if the city paid City Attorney Al Paulson and the other lawyers who worked on the action.

Mitchell has said in previous interviews that he believed the online travel companies paid legal fees.

Messages were left at the City Clerk's office and Paulson's Belleville law office Thursday. They had not been returned as of press time Thursday.

Although Fairview Heights had hoped for more when it began the suits four years ago, Mitchell said he was satisfied.

"I think we as a city of Fairview Heights got its fair share," Mitchell said.

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