Ill. appeals court affirms $3 million award to Chicago State whistleblower

By Jacob Bielanski | Mar 29, 2016

CHICAGO (Legal Newsline) - A former attorney for Chicago State University will still receive $2 million in punitive damages after an Illinois appellate court on March 2 affirmed a jury's decision in a whistleblower case.

In August 2014, a Cook County jury awarded James Crowley more than $3 million. The Illinois First District Appellate Court was tasked with deciding whether punitive damages were available to Crowley.

The court conceded that the students and taxpayers would bear the responsibility for the award, but it sought to deter future misconduct.

Steven Pearlman, an attorney with the Proskauer Rose law firm told Legal Newsline that the appellate decision was the “first of its kind” under the Illinois State Official and Employee Ethics Act.

“The statute itself does not specifically mention punitive damages - it lays out a number of different types of damages that could be recovered, and says that the damages include, but are not limited to, that list,” Pearlman said.

“Does that mean punitive damages could be recoverable under this act? The appellate court said yes.”

Crowley was asked by school officials to withhold certain documents during a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the school’s recently hired president, Wayne Watson. Crowley released the records anyway, and brought the issue to Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office. He was subsequently terminated by the school.

Pearlman speculated that a separate law on employee retirement benefits was at the core of the FOIA requests. The new president had come from another state institution and had allegedly hoped to draw the pension earned from that position.

A state law, however, required a 60-day gap between leaving the previous position and taking up a new one. The initiator of the FOIA, which the court identified as a “prolific document requester,” was allegedly looking for proof that the new president was doing work for the school during that gap.

In addition to the damages, the original court had also doubled the back pay owed by the school, from $480,000 to $960,000.

Pearlman said the case should be a “wake-up call” to employers around the country to expand their training on whistleblowing legislation.

“There are scores of state-specific whistleblower statutes that can be invoked and result in massive, massive damages,” Pearlman said.

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