Houston Texas Business Lawyer

Appellate Court Rules to Protect University Whistleblower

Landmark ruling by Illinois court awards millions to fired administrator

The Illinois Appellate Court upheld a trial court's groundbreaking ruling to pay over $3 million to a former employee at Chicago State University. The decision on March 2 sends a clear message that whistleblowers everywhere deserve protection.

James Crowley, who worked for the university as an attorney and administrator, was terminated after he refused to withhold documents regarding former university President Wayne Watson's conduct. This information had been legally requested by a faculty member under the state's open record law.

Two years ago, a jury in Cook County ruled that Crowley had been unfairly fired after disclosing information as required by law and meeting with representatives from the state Attorney General's office regarding threats made by Watson. Crowley's lawsuit is historically significant because it represents the first verdict resulting from a whistleblower claim under the Illinois State Officials and Employees Ethics Act.

The defendants in the whistleblower case, who included Watson, the university itself and the seven trustees on the board at the time of Crowley's termination, argued that Crowley was terminated due to misusing university resources such as reserved parking spaces and for giving preferential treatment to a student. However, the appellate court turned aside those accusations, affirming that the issue at hand was Crowley's decision to expose illegal activity on the part of Watson and his associates.

According to the court's decision, the defendants not only wrongfully terminated Crowley, but also sought to destroy his professional reputation and inflict psychological distress. Justice Terrence J. Lavin wrote that the defendants "did whatever they could to protect Watson's reputation, and they did it at Crowley's expense."

Ruling sets precedent that this sort of conduct will not be tolerated

The Cook County jury's original verdict awarded Crowley $480,000 in back pay - as four years had passed since he lost his $120,000 salary - and $2 million in punitive damages. A judge then doubled the amount of back pay and added interest, bringing the amount to $1.02 million. The appellate court noted that doubling back pay helps to make defendants in wrongful termination suits whole again by paying for the collateral consequences of losing income, such as inability to pay bills and loss of benefits. In Crowley's case, he had to cash in his retirement when he lost his job, losing the benefit of those investments.

The $2 million punitive damage award was upheld based on the defendants' "totally reprehensible" conduct, according to the ruling. Watson and his top lieutenants acted with "malice and deceit," the appellate court suggested. With interest and continuing back pay until all appeals are resolved, the school currently owes Crowley about $5 million - an amount that the judges say is intended to prevent future unethical behavior.

In the ruling, the judges' harsh language sent a clear message: Government employees who call out state officials and agencies for illegal actions will be protected under the law.