When Chicago State University administrator James Crowley was going to turn over documents, he thought he was following the law. When others stepped in to stop him, eventually leading to him being fired, he thought something was wrong. Now the Illinois Appellate Court has upheld his whistleblower case, with damages of over $3 million.
James Crowley was an administrator at the state university, and former university attorney. Under the Illinois open records law, a faculty member had requested certain documents about Chicago State University President Wayne Watson. Crowley was obligated to turn over the requested documents. However, others in the university system, including Watson, had other plans for the information and Crowley.
The Illinois Freedom of Information Act is a statute that governs the inspection of public records. First enacted in 1984, the Act presumes that public records should be open and accessible. All public bodies are required to make their public records available for inspection, including state universities and colleges. Available records include “full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them.”
In Crowley's whistleblower lawsuit, he alleged that the university retaliated against him after he refused to withhold certain documents, and for reporting his concerns about the information and contracting practices to the Attorney General's Office. After a trial, a jury found for Crowley, awarding him over $3 million in back pay, interest, and punitive damages. The court also ordered Crowley to be reinstated to his former position.
After an appeal, the Appellate Court upheld the trial court's decision. They found that punitive damages are available under the Illinois Ethics Act, and denied the university's position that they were immune from punitive damages. The court went further to openly criticize the behavior of the defendants in this case, calling their behavior “thoroughly reprehensible,” accusing them of acting with malice and deceit.
"Defendants did whatever they could to protect Watson's reputation, and they did it at Crowley's expense,” wrote Judge Terrence J. Lavin in a unanimous decision. “Rather than acknowledge Watson inappropriately got involved in university business affairs before he had officially started, CSU instigated a campaign designed to both economically harm Crowley and to inflict psychological distress upon him.”
“I think it sends an important message to the Illinois residents that we can do the right thing, hold our public officials accountable and be confident that we are protected by the law,” said Crowley.
Needless to say, Chicago State University was not happy with the decision, and plans to appeal the case to the Illinois Supreme Court.
As part of their argument, university attorneys argued that the public university system was strapped for cash, due to the budget crisis. Judge Smith was not persuaded, and told the attorney to “stick to the case.” Meanwhile, Watson officially ended his position with the university on December 31st; however, he continues to be paid his annual salary of about $200,000 until his contract ends this summer.
If you are being harassed for speaking out about unethical behavior in your place of employment, the Illinois whistleblower laws may protect you from retaliation. Speak with an experienced Illinois whistleblower attorney who understands your rights, and will fight to protect your job, your position, and your reputation. At Benassi & Benassi, we are committed to getting our clients and their families the justice they deserve.