Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit Monday against a transportation company that runs shuttle buses from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to the Chicago area, alleging the owner has committed "flagrant and numerous violations of the Illinois civil rights and consumer protection laws."
Madigan filed the federal suit against Suburban Express, which services six universities in the Midwest, and its founder Dennis Toeppen, nearly five months after opening a civil rights investigation into the company.
“For too long, Suburban Express' owner Dennis Toeppen has discriminated, harassed and bullied customers who often have little means of recourse,” Madigan said at a news conference announcing the suit, alongside Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago’s Executive Director Tuyet Le.
“My lawsuit alleges that Suburban Express has long been engaged in illegal discrimination and harassment against college students in Illinois, particularly University of Illinois students and their families,” she continued.
“The defendant has subjected students and their families to advertisements that discriminate against people on the basis of their race, national origin and religion,” Madigan said, adding, “He's subjected families and students to malicious harassment, including authoring and publishing websites that publicly ridicule and scorn customers. He’s also filed and publicly posted lawsuits that contain students’ personal financial information and he has also abusively retaliated and banned customers who negatively review his bus company’s service.”
Madigan’s investigation was sparked by multiple complaints after the company sent customers a racially-charged marketing email in December, insulting the University of Illinois' Chinese students.
The ad listed 11 reasons students should choose the company for rides from the school’s central Illinois campus to various stops across Chicago’s suburbs. Among those reasons – which included clean buses and experienced drivers – was “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”
Madigan's subsequent investigation into the company uncovered “rampant and equally egregious examples of the owner’s illegal conduct.”
Some of those examples included racial attacks Toeppen made against students who negatively reviewed the company, Madigan said.
“In one instance, the owner of Suburban Express called a customer ‘a pushy little Chinese international student with a fragile ego’ who is ‘having trouble coping with the USA’ and should ‘go back to your country and stay there,’” Madigan alleged, adding, “He told another customer to ‘bone up on your English a little so you don't have more problems like this in my country.’”
“This is explicit race-based discrimination that, in addition to being unacceptable, is also illegal,” Madigan said.
Madigan said Toeppen, who started the company in 1983 when he was a sophomore at the University of Illinois, has a long history of “repeated and relentless harassment of his customers,” making note of what he calls the “public page of shame” on the company’s website, that has since been deleted.
On that page, Madigan said Toeppen “posts hate-filled comments about customers. He has also created and maintains individual pages on his website dedicated to smearing individual customers with horrible insults including ‘slimeball’ and ‘dishonest little scumbag.’”
“His posts often include a person's home address, email and phone number and in some cases, they also include pictures of the customers and their homes,” Madigan said, adding that he has banned “hundreds of customers from riding his buses for reasons that include being ‘too whiny’ or ‘too stupid to ride our bus.’”
In addition to publicly shaming customers, Suburban Express filed more than 100 lawsuits in 2013, seeking payment from customers the company alleged violated the “terms of a written contract” they agreed to when purchasing their fare.
Those infractions ranged from boarding a bus at the wrong stop, using duplicate tickets, or seeking a refund, among others. The company later dropped those lawsuits, filed in Ford County – a location inconvenient for students named in the suits, Madigan said.
“Once he files these lawsuits, he often posts them on his website, along with exhibits that contain customers’ full credit card and sometimes bank account numbers in complete disregard and violation of their privacy rights,” Madigan claimed.
Madigan said the suit seeks to force Toeppen to remove customers’ personal and private information from the company’s website, and to take out the illegal provisions in the company’s contracts disallowing customers from posting negative reviews online, among several other changes necessary in order to remain in business.
“An apology is simply not going to be enough to deal with his illegal conduct. There’s an enormous amount of work that has to be done to even attempt to get this individual and this company into compliance with our various civil rights and consumer protection laws,” Madigan said, adding, “If he doesn’t do that, he shouldn’t be operating.”
Toeppen and Suburban Express did not immediately respond to request for comment.