An Illinois Appellate Court has upheld a jury’s award of over $3 million in a whistleblowing case brought by a former Chicago State University (CSU) employee against the school. James Crowley, who worked as a legal counsel for CSU, claims he was fired by the university in retaliation for refusing to withhold documents subject to the state’s open records law.

First Award Under Illinois Ethics Act

Crowley was fired from his $120,000 per year job in February 2010. He filed suit not only against the University, but also against its then-president and the trustees who served on the board when he was fired. In 2014, a jury found that Crowley had been unfairly fired and awarded him $480,000 in back pay and $2 million in punitive damages.

It was the first time a punitive award had been given under the Illinois State Officials and Employees Ethics Act, designed to deter whistleblower retaliation. The law had gone into effect in November 2003.

Appellate Court Increases the Original Award

In a unanimous decision, the 3-judge panel of the Illinois Appellate Court not only upheld the jury’s original award but also doubled Crowley’s back pay with interest. Additionally, the Court ordered CSU to pay for Crowley’s legal fees and to continue paying his salary through the appeals process, bringing the total award to about $5 million. If the University continues to appeal and loses, the award will climb even higher.

The Case For Whistleblowing

According to Crowley, the bad blood between him and the University began when a faculty member requested documents under the State Records Act about Wayne Watson. Watson had been recently hired as president of CSU but had not yet officially began serving in the position. Watson instructed Crowley to release only two pages of relevant documents, while Crowley interpreted the State Records law to mean that the entire set of documents should be released.

Retaliation Against the Whistleblower

According to the Appellate Court’s opinion, at one point Watson threatened Crowley against releasing the information, telling Crowley, “If you read [the law] my way, you’re my friend. If you do it your way, you’re my enemy.” Crowley was subsequently fired from CSU. The school’s attorneys asserted that Crowley wasn’t fired in retaliation for whistleblowing, but rather for misusing reserved parking spaces and preferential treatment of a student.

Judge Writes A Scathing Opinion

The Appellate Court’s Justice Terrence J. Lavin pulled no punches in writing about the Court’s unanimous decision under the Ethics Act, saying that, “Defendants did whatever they could to protect Watson’s reputation, and they did it at Crowley’s expense.” The Court also accused CSU of instigating “a campaign designed to both economically harm Crowley and to inflict psychological distress upon him.”

CSU Claims It’s Too Poor to Pay the Award

Along with other arguments, the school claimed that the original award wasn’t fair because Illinois state colleges are suffering under budget cuts. CSU even enlisted “amicus briefs” from other state schools to bolster its argument that it shouldn’t be forced to pay the award. Appellate Judge James Smith wasn’t buying it. “Let’s not play games here,” he said. “Stick to the case.”

A Weak Rebuttal

An attorney for the school, Michael Resis, has vowed to appeal the decision up to the Illinois Supreme Court. Instead of denying that the university was involved in the corrupt behavior described in the lawsuit, Resis only complained that the size of the punitive fine awarded was “without precedent.”

Nonetheless, the award has been viewed as a triumph by Crowley and other whistleblowers who have experienced similar retaliation. 

To learn more about the Ethics Act and how the law protects you as a whistleblower, contact our legal team.