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Kristen Daum, Published December 01 2009

Fargo traffic fines settlement approved; privacy concerns raised

A federal judge approved a settlement Monday for a class-action lawsuit against the city of Fargo over excessive traffic fines, but now there’s a new issue on the horizon, dealing with class members’ privacy.

The North Dakota Department of Human Services is seeking access to the personal information of individuals who will receive payment under the lawsuit, as a way to recoup debts owed to the state for child support.

Department officials told attorneys they intend to file a subpoena requesting the information from the city, attorney Monte Rogneby, who represents the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, said in federal court Monday.

Rogneby said the state wants the database so it can find individuals who owe child support payments and are receiving money as part of the settlement.

Rogneby objected to the release of the information, saying members of the class-action lawsuit did not agree to have their private data distributed to a third party, such as a state agency.

Attorney John M. Baker, who represented the city in the lawsuit, did not take a position on the plaintiffs’ concern over privacy, but said the state should not be allowed to get the database for free.

The city of Fargo was required to pay for all administrative costs associated with the lawsuit, so the state should share that cost if it wants the data, Baker said, adding an estimated cost for the state of about $5,300.

In a protective order, District Judge Ralph R. Erickson wrote that Fargo officials cannot release the private information of class members without the approval of a federal judge.

Erickson added that the state’s interest in obtaining child support payments does not allow the state to avoid costs associated with getting the information.

There are at least 13,900 eligible claims, amounting to more than $1 million, that the city will pay as part of the lawsuit, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in November.

As part of the settlement, the city agreed to pay up to $1.5 million for eligible claims. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit contend that Fargo’s traffic fines illegally exceeded those in North Dakota’s Century Code, but the city denied any wrongdoing.

Fargo City Attorney Erik Johnson said checks should be sent out within two to three months.

Officials called the final approval of the settlement mostly a formality. A few other outlying issues have yet to be resolved in the lawsuit, such as attorneys’ fees and possible claims that are unclear.

Erickson requested a detailed statement of work done by the plaintiffs’ attorneys over the past three years of the lawsuit – saying he expects to approve the $350,000 requested but doesn’t feel comfortable doing so without first looking at the details.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the city and the plaintiffs said letters have been sent to the appropriate individuals with claims that remain unclear.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541