CHICAGO — In an unprecedented move, the City of Chicago has offered to drastically reduce the more than $100,000 in parking tickets issued to a single vehicle.
Yet despite the offer to drop the record amount of fines to under $2,500, the registered owner of the vehicle, West Side resident Jennifer Fitzgerald, said she still can't afford to pay.
Fitzgerald had sued the city, saying she shouldn't be forced to pay the entire bill on her own, but a judge on Wednesday threw out her lawsuit. However, he refused to grant the city's motion to dismiss the suit with prejudice, and is allowing her to amend her complaint.
"The city offered Ms. Fitzgerald a substantial reduction in the total amount owed, along with several options to pay over time that would have settled the matter," Chicago Law Department spokesman Roderick Drew said before the hearing. "Unfortunately, all offers short of completely wiping away all debts, including prior unpaid tickets, were refused. Therefore, the city has no other alternative but to proceed with its motion to dismiss Ms. Fitzgerald's lawsuit."
Fitzgerald's parking ticket nightmare began in November 2009, when she said a 1999 Chevy Monte Carlo car registered in her name was, unbeknown to her, abandoned by her ex-boyfriend and United Airlines employee Brandon Preveau at O'Hare Airport parking lot E.
It remained there for nearly 2½ years, racking up 678 parking tickets and $105,000 in fines until April of last year. City officials said they believe it's the most-ticketed vehicle in Chicago history.
Fitzgerald, through pro bono attorney Robin Omahana, filed a lawsuit against the city and Preveau in November. The lawsuit contends Preveau put Fitzgerald's name on the registration and abandoned the vehicle without her knowledge, and therefore, the city should make Preveau responsible for the ticket debt.
The lawsuit also contends that the city's municipal code states that cars parked at O'Hare for more than 30 days will be ticketed and towed immediately, meaning most of the tickets should have never been written.
Since the suit was filed, the city has offered to wipe away all but a week's worth of tickets totaling $2,460.
Unfortunately, Fitzgerald has another problem to contend with.
According to Omahana, Fitzgerald owes $2,010 in parking tickets on another vehicle — an amount she could afford to pay in installments, but not when added to the revised O'Hare fines.
Omahana said he tried to convince Preveau, through his attorney Matthew Prengaman, to take responsibility for the amount connected to the car he abandoned, but Preveau declined.
"We were unable to accept the city's settlement offer because the ex-boyfriend wouldn't contribute anything toward it," said Omahana, explaining Fitzgerald barely scrapes by, living on child support and food stamps.
Prengaman only said, "I believe my client has the law on his side, and hope the court will rule his way."
He had also filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying Fitzgerald's name was on the title and registration, not Preveau's.
"It was obvious it was her vehicle," Prengaman said. "When the relationship ended, he had permission to drive the car. There's a million different ways the plaintiff could have got access to the car despite being in an employee lot."
But Omahana countered that when the couple split up, "Jennifer had no ability to control the vehicle. The parties treated it as his car. When the parties broke up Brendan took the car. This is one of the great unanswered questions — why didn't he just move the car?"
Alexis Long, Assistant Corporation Counsel for the city, argued chancery court was not the proper place for the case as Fitzgerald had not exhausted all her legal remedies at city administrative hearings.
A former alderman, Judge Thomas Allen seemed sympathetic to Fitzgerald's story.
"One thing I see is a ridiculous, robotic march to write tickets on a $600 junk car," Allen said. "It's not necessarily common sense but it is within the law. It's a very sad story of someone who owes $100,000."
Allen ultimately dismissed the case, but gave Fitzgerald 28 days to amend her complaint and address the objections raised by the city and Preveau. He also encouraged all parties to try to work out a settlement.
Afterward, Fitzgerald was unhappy with the results, but was hopeful a settlement can be reached, even though her relationship with Preveau, the father of her 5-year-old daughter, is strained.
"I don't want to admit guilt and say, 'Sure, I'll pay the whole thing,'" Fitzgerald said. "It infuriates me — it drives me insane."