After $10 Million Settlement in Pennsylvania Jail Mugshot Class-Action, Fewer-Than-Expected Claims Leave Windfall for Expungement Program
by David M. Reutter
In September 2021, after closing out a $10 million settlement in a class-action suit alleging its county jail violated the privacy rights of detainees by making their expunged criminal records available online, Bucks County, Pennsylvania was left with about $80,000 in unclaimed funds when fewer claims than expected came in.
The settlement was approved by the federal court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania not quite a year earlier on November 30, 2020, in a long-running case that dated back over two decades to 1998. That was when Daryoush Taha was arrested and booked into the jail on charges that never led to a conviction. Yet his arrest record and mugshot were made available online when the County rolled out its Inmate Lookup tool in 2007.
Taha’s information was later picked up by a private firm, Mugshots.com, whose sister firm—cleverly named Unpublish.com—then demanded a ransom when Taha found out about it and tried to take it down.
Taha sued the firm and the County in 2013. The Court eventually certified a class of similarly situated plaintiffs in 2016. Three years later a jury found the County guilty of violating the state’s Criminal History Record Information Act (CHIRA), awarding each of the estimated 66,799 class members $1,000 in damages in May 2019. [See: PLN, Nov. 2019, p. 28].
Republicans then holding the majority of seats on the Board of County Commissioners vowed to fight at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. But a new Democratic majority swept into office in late 2019 balked at running up the county’s legal tab any further. They directed the County to settle, ultimately swallowing a $16 million bill, including the settlement fund and the County’s own legal fees.
The agreement that was finally approved on November 30, 2020 provided a $10 million settlement fund to pay $600 each to as many as 10,000 class members for a total class payout of $6 million, plus $4 million in fees and expenses to the Philadelphia attorneys providing class counsel: Alan E. Denenberg of Abramson & Denenberg; Jonathan Shub, Aarthi Manohar, Joseph C. Kohn, Kevin Laukaitis and Robert J. Larocca of Kohn Swift & Graf P.C.; and Theodore M. Schaer of Zarwin Baum Devito Kaplan Schaer & Toddy, P.C.
The agreement also provided a $30,000 incentive award from the settlement fund for Taha, plus an amount equal to five percent of the difference between the total actual claims paid and the $6 million cap. That money was earmarked to fund “programmatic relief for expungement and addiction services for clients of the Bucks County Public Defender.” See: Taha v. Bucks Cty. Pa., 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 222655 (E.D. Pa.).
Taha returned to the Court on February 21, 2021, when he was awarded $150,000 in damages against defendants Mughots.com and Unpublish.com. See: Taha v. Bucks Cty., 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26961 (E.D. Pa.).
Seven months later, after the claims period closed in the settlement, the total payout had reached $5.92 million, according to County spokesman James O’Malley. That left $80,000, which the County will use to continue its newly created expungement unit within the Public Defender’s office. The County already used $144,964 of its $200,000 contribution to the expungement fund to create a new attorney position for that unit.
Additional source: Bucks County Courier Times
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Related legal cases
Taha v. Bucks Cty.
|Cite||2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26961 (E.D. Pa.)|
Taha v. Bucks Cty. Pa.
|Cite||2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 222655 (E.D. Pa.)|