District solicitor lawsuit settled
Coatesville Area School District will get more than $400,000 in settlement
>> Attorneys who formerly represented the Coatesville Area School District have agreed to pay more than $400,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the school board to recover what it contended were excessive fees paid over a period of several years.
The settlement was formally approved by the current school board on Nov. 8, discontinuing the district’s fight over breach of contract claims with former solicitors Rhoads & Sinon and Susquehanna Legal Group, and attorney James Ellison, who represented the district during that time period.
In a brief statement released last week by the district and the defendants, the parties state that the settlement marked an amicable end to the litigation, which began in 2015 and went through several legal proceedings before Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Sommer.
“The parties reached the settlement in recognition of the costs and risks of protracted litigation, and without any admission of finding of fault or liability by any party,” the statement read. The final sum that the defendants will pay the district is $420,000.
The settlement comes on the eve of a trial involving the former superintendent of schools in the Coatesville district, Richard Como, on criminal charges involving his use of school funds. A jury is due to be selected to hear his case, which grew from a grand jury investigation into his activities and those of Ellison and former district Athletic Director James Donato, in December.
The district had contended, in multiple complaints, that Ellison over billed for his time and services when he represented it. The firms involved had argued that all of the bills paid to them during the course of the years that Ellison worked as the solicitor were approved by the board at public board meetings, and thus were proper.
The suit was first filed in 2015 after an outside investigative report commissioned by the school board alleged that Ellison and the firms had overbilled the district for services that he performed while acting as its solicitor between 2002 and 2014, when the school board voted to terminate his contract.
The lead count alleged that over the course of Ellison’s
relationship with the district, the monthly invoices submitted for work done were “grossly inflated … on nearly all matters.”
“In some circumstances, (the firms and Ellison) billed for time that was never actually rendered, or billed time for certain tasks that was in excess of the time reasonably required to satisfactorily perform or complete such tasks.” Over the course of the relationship, the district paid $7.7 million in legal fees.
The suit also cites Ellison’s work on municipal tax lien sales and the district’s solar initiative as examples of his malpractice. It asks that in each count, the district be granted compensation for improper billing or financial losses above $50,000, interest and costs.
Ellison was a target of the District Attorney’s Office investigation into his work with the school district, one of the county’s poorest and most financially challenged. He has not been charged with any crime. Donato pleaded guilty earlier this year, and was sentenced to two to 23 months in county prison and five years probation.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.
Former Coatesville Area School District solicitor James E. Ellison