Illinois Supreme Court to Decide Scope of State Whistleblower Act

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Our previews of the newest additions to the Illinois Supreme Court's civil docket conclude with State of Illinois ex rel. Pusateri v. The Peoples Gas Light and Coke CompanyAn unpublished decision from the Fourth Division of the First District, Pusateri involves two major issues relating to the scope of the state Whistleblower Act: (1) does a plaintiff state a claim under the Act by alleging that the defendant included falsified information in a utility rate case; and (2) did a 2009 safety audit before the Illinois Commerce Commission publicly disclose the alleged fraud, requiring plaintiff to prove he was the original source of the information in order to establish jurisdiction.

Plaintiff filed a sealed complaint under the Whistleblower Reward and Protection Act in 2009. In the spring of 2011, the state notified the court that it was declining to intervene in the proceedings. The court ordered the plaintiff to conduct the action on the state’s behalf, unsealed the complaint and ordered service on the defendant.

Before launching into the facts of Pusateri, we should spend a moment with Section 3 of the Act – the part that’s at issue in Pusateri – since “whistleblower” is something of a misnomer. Section 3 is more in the nature of a classic common-law qui tam action: a private citizen sues on behalf of the government, alleging that somebody gave the government a fraudulent bill or claim for payment. In the vast majority of cases, this involves straightforward allegations of fraud by the government’s vendors – an allegation that a bill for goods or services provided to the government was somehow based on fraud. The penalties written into the statute are stiff – a civil penalty and treble damages.

Pusateri involves something quite different, however – a utility’s rate case before the Illinois Commerce Commission. The defendant is required to file a written report with the ICC whenever it takes more than an hour to respond to a report of a gas leak. The plaintiff was a former management-level employee of the defendant. He alleged that following his promotion to management, he was ordered to falsify the ICC reports, changing response times exceeding an hour to something less than an hour. The court noted that the complaint was short on details, including nothing about how many members of management supposedly participated in the alleged practice; whether every report was allegedly altered or only some were; whether it was allegedly done routinely or only when the utility was getting lots of reports; or whether there was some sort of threshold that triggered alteration – such as changing every report from an incident where the response time exceeded two hours.

Anyhow, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant turned over these response time reports to the ICC as part of a rate case, arguing that its safety record was one basis for granting the requested rate increase. The rate increase was granted, and utility bills were subsequently sent to the State and others using the new higher rates. And that’s where the qui tam claim arose, according to the plaintiff – the utility bills to the State were the supposedly fraudulent claim for payment.

The defendant moved to dismiss on two grounds: (1) failure to state a claim – purportedly false support for a rate case didn’t transform the subsequent utility bills into a false claim sufficient to support a Whistleblower Act claim; and (2) the plaintiff’s allegations had been publicly disclosed before filing, and the plaintiff wasn’t the original source of the information, meaning that the trial court didn’t have jurisdiction. The trial court dismissed on the first grounds, holding that plaintiff’s theory didn’t state a claim.

The defendant’s principal argument on appeal was that safety records aren’t one of the factors set out in the Administrative Code for the ICC to consider in rate cases, so there was no causative connection between the alleged fraud and the defendant’s bills. In reversing the trial court, the First District held that while true, that didn’t change the fact that the defendant had submitted the data, and the ICC had considered it as part of the case – nothing in the Administrative Code suggested that the enumerated factors were an exclusive list. Given that the case arose on a motion to dismiss – meaning that the plaintiff’s allegations had to be assumed true on review – that was enough to state a claim under the Whistleblower Act.

The defendant’s alternative argument was based on Section 4(e) of the Act, 740 ILCS 175/4(e). According to that section, no court has jurisdiction over a Whistleblower Act claim based on publicly disclosed information unless it’s brought by either the Attorney General, or by the private individual who was the original source of the information. The “original source” is defined as the person with “direct and independent knowledge of the information” who voluntarily provided the information to the State before suing.

The defendant argued that the ICC had conducted a safety audit, including its gas leak response time reports, in February 2009.  This constituted a public disclosure of the alleged fraud, the defendant argued, and since the plaintiff was not the original source of the allegations, he was allegedly out of luck.

The Appellate Court disagreed. According to the Court, the ICC had found the defendant’s reports inadequate to explain slow response times, and that the Commission had requested additional reports, leading to the defendant instituting a new reporting system. But the alleged falsification of the reports was another matter entirely, the Court concluded – nothing in the audit suggested that the ICC was aware of those allegations. Since the allegations had never been publicly disclosed, there was no need to consider whether or not the plaintiff was the original source. Justice Stuart E. Palmer dissented, arguing that allegedly false information in a rate case didn’t make the ensuing utility bills into a false claim within the meaning of the Whistleblower Act.

We expect Pusateri to be decided in approximately eight months.

 

Published In: Civil Remedies Updates, Energy & Utilities Updates, Government Contracting Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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