A judge gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a settlement capped at
$1.5 million to be divided among as many as 53,500 drivers to resolve the lawsuit involving Fargo's illegal traffic fines.
Under the agreement, drivers would pocket up to 65 percent of the difference between the excessive fines they paid the city and those allowed by state law.
The actual amount will not be decided, however, until all eligible drivers have submitted claims following a notification process that likely will begin in September.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Klein, who gave preliminary approval to the settlement, said final approval likely would happen in December.
"I have no difficulty finding that preliminary approval of this settlement should be granted," Klein said during a hearing in the case Wednesday.
The city could have been liable for more than $4 million in excess fines, according to figures by the plaintiffs.
Lawyers representing the class of motorists will be paid up to $350,000, pending final approval by a judge, according to the terms of the settlement. The attorneys' fees will not come out of the $1.5 million.
Tim Purdon, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said it is impossible to calculate an average settlement amount for drivers. Some paid multiple fines, while others were ticketed for a single violation.
Running a stop sign, for example, was punishable by a $100 fine by the city of Fargo, but the limit under state law is $20. A driver would be eligible for up to 65 percent of the $80 difference.
A high participation rate in a class-action settlement would be 25 to 30 percent of class members, Purdon said. The average ranges from 10 to 20 percent.
"That is our goal, to have as high a participation rate as possible," Purdon said.
Notices will be mailed to eligible drivers and published in legal advertisements in The Forum according to a timetable that still is being worked out.
Left undecided is whether the two named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Stephanie Sauby of West Fargo and James Burns of Fargo, will receive incentive awards.
They filed a motion seeking an incentive award of $10,000 for Sauby and $5,000 for Burns. Other class members will have an opportunity to object to those awards, which will be addressed when the settlement is finally approved.
U.S. District Judge Rodney Webb, who is overseeing the class-action lawsuit, is undergoing treatments for cancer and was unable to preside at Wednesday's hearing, Klein said.