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Judge boosts whistleblower's award in case against Chicago State University

By Bethany Krajelis | Mar 12, 2014

CHICAGO (Legal Newsline) - A Cook County, Ill., judge today added an extra $800,000 to the nearly $2.4 million a jury last month awarded to Chicago State University's former senior legal counsel who asserts he was fired in retaliation for complying with public record laws and reporting misconduct.

James Crowley brought his whistleblower case against the university in 2010 and after a two-week trial, a jury on Feb. 18 handed down a verdict awarding him $2 million in punitive damages and $480,000 in back pay for four years of salary.

At an afternoon hearing, Cook County Circuit Judge James McCarthy granted Crowley's request to have his back pay award doubled and make the university pay interest, a pair of remedies provided under the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act.

On top approving the jury's $2 million award for punitive damages, McCarthy ordered the university to pay $1.2 million in compensatory damages, which includes the requested doubled back pay award -$960,000-and interest, upping Crowley's total award to more than $3 million.

The judge also set a briefing schedule on two other remedies provided under the act: reinstatement and attorneys' fees. Part of the jury's verdict included a finding that Crowley should be reinstated to the position he was fired from four years ago last month.

McCarthy gave Crowley until April 8 to submit filings regarding attorney's fees and reinstatement and Chicago State until April 22 to respond, after which time the plaintiff will have a week to submit a reply. He also set a May 6 hearing to further discuss, or potentially rule, on the duo of issues.

When it came to the reinstatement issue, the judge said it's "quite clear from the verdict" that Crowley should get "his employment back" and that someone from the university may need to come to court to testify.

Crowley was represented at today's hearing by Chicago attorneys Anthony Pinelli and Susan Pavlow.

Appearing on behalf of the university, Chicago attorney Preston Pugh told McCarthy he plans to file post-trial motions that will "include a number of things" by March 20.

He also asked the judge to speak with him and Crowley's attorneys outside of the courtroom, a request that was granted. McCarthy, a court reporter and the trio of attorneys walked out of the courtroom through a back door and after a few minutes, everyone but the judge returned. It is unknown what was discussed.

The verdict in this case is believed to be the first one under the state's decade-old ethics law, which was enacted with the goal of preventing public corruption by providing whistleblower protection to state employees who report unethical behavior.

Crowley filed a whistleblower claim under the act in 2010, shortly after he was fired. His suit named Chicago State, its president Wayne Watson and trustees of the school's board.

He claimed he was fired for complying with requests made under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act about the hiring of Watson and bringing allegations of misconduct to the Illinois Attorney General's office.

Watson, who Crowley alleged told him not to provide the requested information, had left City Colleges of Chicago to join Chicago State in August 2009. His start date, however, was moved back to October based on a rule requiring two months between university jobs in order to collect the pension from the previous position.

Crowley's suit and disclosures to the attorney general's office questioned whether Watson actually waited to start working until October and if the university was altering other contracts.

Chicago State maintained at trial that Crowley was terminated for cause, including misusing university funds for personal parking, among other reasons. Pugh previously said the attorney general's office made no findings against the university after it looked into Crowley's allegations.

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