Whistleblower verdict upheld against Chicago State University

by Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP
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A Cook County judge recently upheld the verdict in a whistleblower case against Chicago State University. In February 2014, former university employee James Crowley told a jury that Chicago State fired him after he reported misconduct by the school’s leadership. Chicago State countered that it terminated Crowley for “improper financial dealings and misuse of university resources.” The jury found for Crowley and the judge ordered the university to pay Crowley more than $3 million and to reinstate him.

This judgment is the first under the Illinois state ethics act whistleblower provision. The act provides guidelines and protections for public employees who report potential violations of the ethical guidelines.

Chicago State appealed the verdict in the circuit court on several grounds: (a) the jury foreman had not disclosed that a relative of a Chicago State University trustee had sued him in a wrongful termination case; (b) the damages were excessive; and (c) the university could not reinstate Crowley because Crowley would displace other employees.

The judge questioned the jury foreman and found that the foreman had not intentionally concealed his prior lawsuit. That experience also had not significantly influenced the jury’s quick deliberations. The judge further found that Illinois’ history of public corruption made the award of more than $3 million necessary even though taxpayers and students eventually bear the expense. The judge emphasized that the public can hold the responsible officials accountable and deter future misconduct. Finally, the judge was not moved by the administrative obstacles the university asserted would make reinstatement difficult. Chicago State had tried to destroy Crowley’s career opportunities and reputation. The university will have to pay lost compensation from the date of the decision until any appeals are resolved if it chooses not to reinstate Crowley.

The judge’s decision sends a signal to non-profit institutions and government agencies that whistleblower protection schemes apply equally to public and private organizations. This case also sets a precedent for the imposition of increased damages to deter retaliation.

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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