District solic­i­tor law­suit set­tled

Coatesville Area School District will get more than $400,000 in set­tle­ment

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael P. Rel­la­han mrel­la­han@21st-cen­tu­ry­media.com @Ch­escoCourtNews on Twit­ter

>> 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.

DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA FILE PHOTO

Former Coatesville Area School District solic­i­tor James E. El­li­son

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