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San Jose weighs limits on class-action claims

  Class Action  -   POSTED: 2007/12/11 11:27

The San Jose City Council today will consider new rules for filing claims that a prominent local lawyer says is an attempt to block class actions. "It's very interesting that this proposal is coming to the council while we've got this suit looming on the horizon," said James McManis, who in September filed a $1 million claim against the city seeking refunds on behalf of thousands of motorists who were ticketed under a controversial city program.

The proposal by City Attorney Rick Doyle states that "no claim may be filed on behalf of a class of persons unless verified by every member of that class."

Doyle said the new claims policy "is not really related to" the McManis claim or to class-actions in general. Instead, he said it's an attempt to help the city council better calculate the city's potential exposure to damages. Requiring all participants in a class-action to approve the claim filing, Doyle said, makes sense so that the city can determine in advance who has a valid claim.

McManis filed his claim on behalf of San Jose motorist Jorge Luis Ramirez and "others similarly situated." The claim says thousands of motorists paid fines ranging from $99 to $350 under the city's now-defunct Neighborhood Automated Speed Compliance Program, or NASCOP.

The program involved a city traffic engineer who sat in an unmarked van with a radar gun and digital cameras to snap speeding motorists as they drove past. The registered owner of the vehicle would then receive a ticket in the mail.

City officials saw the program as a way to curb speeding without further taxing San Jose's thinly stretched police force. The city sent 7,000 violation notices in 2006 alone.

The program also proved popular with many residents frustrated by speeding on neighborhood streets. City officials claimed the program reduced speeding 8 percent overall and cut the number of motorists who exceeded the posted limit by more than 10 mph by 62 percent.

But Police Chief Rob Davis and the city's transportation director in February advised the council to convert the program to a warning-only system, citing growing concerns that the tickets could not stand up in court. They noted that since the program was enacted, the state Legislature had declared that photo radar could not be used for speed enforcement.

Ramirez said he got two tickets for driving 28 mph and 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. He paid the fines but later was told by police officer friends that it is highly unusual to be ticketed for driving less than 5 mph over the posted limit.

Claims are a step toward filing a lawsuit against a government agency. The purpose is to give the government a chance to pay the claim without being dragged into court.

Peter Keane, a law professor at Golden Gate University, said Doyle's proposal "seems to go against the whole nature of what a class action suit is all about." He added that the purpose of such lawsuits is to appoint a representative for the entire class because it's virtually impossible to gather the whole group.

"Whether the courts would look at it as something the city can or cannot do, I just don't know," Keane said.


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