When is a judgement of slightly more than three quarters of a million dollars in favor of a complainant considered a big win for the defendant?
Welcome to long-running lawsuit filed the Lyons Township School Treasurer’s office, known as the LTTO, against Lyons Township High School District 204. On May 21, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Jerry Esrig released his 40-page ruling in the trial, denying the major claims of the TTO but awarding the office $764,789.33 for attorney’s fees that the high school district did not pay from 2013 to 2019.
However, Esrig rejected the TTO’s most important claim — that it was due millions of dollars for fees the high school withheld from 2000 through 2012. When the TTO initially filed the lawsuit in 2013, it claimed that LTHS owed it approximately $4.5 million in unpaid fees.
But the judge agreed with high school’s contention that it and the TTO had agreed in 2000 that that District 204 would be reimbursed, in the form of a fee credit, for business services that LTHS performed for itself instead of the TTO.
During the eight years of litigation the TTO is believed to have spent around $4 million in legal fees on the case, according to Lyons Township High School District 204 Superintendent Tim Kilrea. He estimated the high school’s legal fees, which he said were paid for by the school district’s insurance carrier, were around $1 million.
LTHS officials described the verdict as a major victory and a vindication of its long-held position.
“We’re very pleased with the judge’s decision,” said Kilrea. “It’s nice to see that the decision reflected what our thoughts were.”
Mike Thiessen, the president of the TTO board, was much more circumspect in his reaction to the verdict.
“We are still trying to understand the judge’s ruling and how it affects the TTO and our member districts,” Thiessen said in a text message to the Landmark. “There are several pieces here that need to be unpacked, reviewed, and determine the overall impact to everyone involved.”
The TTO board scheduled a closed session meeting for May 26, presumably to discuss the verdict and to discuss whether to file an appeal. The TTO has 30 days to do so.
If the TTO does not appeal the case, the high school district will be free to separate itself from the TTO once the case is finished.
“We would hope that this decision would just be taken as final and we take our next steps,” Kilrea said. “We’d like to get this behind us and move forward.”
The TTO is an obscure unit of government that only exists in suburban Cook County. Its function is the handle the finances — investing reserve funds, issuing checks and paying the bills — of school districts in its township.
LTHS officials had long claimed that they did not use the TTO and are fully capable of handling their own finances, including investing the school’s reserve funds and paying its bills and payroll.
The heart of the case stems from that displeasure. In 2000, in an attempt to placate the high school, then-TTO Treasurer Robert Healy and LTHS officials reached an agreement whereby the high school would receive a credit for a portion of the fees that LTHS performed for itself.
In its lawsuit, the TTO claimed its own board never approved such an arrangement and sought to recover fees that LTHS did not pay for 13 years. But Judge Esrig pointed to a March 21, 2000 TTO board meeting where the trustees voted 2-0 to “accept” a deal that Healy and the TTO worked out.
In 2015, in matter completely separate from the case, Healy, who was a witness in this trial, pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $1 million from the TTO and was sent to prison.
After Healy was found embezzling money from the TTO, a new board led by Thiessen ended the office’s arrangement with LTHS. Esrig ruled that LTHS must pay the TTO for money it subtracted from the annual fees it owed to the TTO from 2013 to 2019.
Fifteen witnesses testified in the bench trial, which was conducted entirely by Zoom, beginning Nov. 9, 2020. After the first week, hearings continued sporadically until March 12.