CHICAGO, Ill. – Chicago State University lost its appeal of a verdict in a whistleblower case and must reinstate an employee it fired for exposing corruption within the school and pay him more than $3 million in damages, a Cook County judge ordered on Thursday.
The case stems from a lawsuit filed in 2010 against Chicago State University by James Crowley, a former university attorney who alleged he was fired after he refused to withhold documents requested under the state of Illinois’ public records law and for reporting questionable contracts signed by top university officials to the Illinois attorney general’s office.
The jury deliberated for 30 minutes after a two-week trial in February before siding with Mr. Crowley. The university was ordered to pay the plaintiff $1 million in back pay plus $2 million in punitive damages.
Chicago State University appealed the verdict and motioned for a new trial, claiming that the trial judge made errors and the state’s whistleblower laws were incorrectly applied. The university also argued that the jury foreman had a conflict of interest that should have excluded him from the jury and that the punitive damages were excessive.
“In a 44-page, harshly worded opinion against Chicago State, Cook County Judge James McCarthy said there were no reasons to overturn the verdict and that the large sum was intended to send a message,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
Judge McCarthy acknowledged that taxpayers and students would ultimately foot the bill for the university’s misconduct, but said the award was necessary given the state’s history of public corruption.
“The public has been made aware of questionable misconduct at Chicago State University and the public may hold the responsible officials accountable so as to deter any future misconduct,” the Chicago Tribune reported, citing the judge’s opinion.
The judge also ordered the university to pay $318,000 in attorney fees and said it would have to pay Mr. Crowley “front pay” effective immediately until his reinstatement or the resolution of any further appeals.
“Potentially, the clock on what Crowley continues to get in this case continues to run unless they reinstate him,” Mr. Crowley’s attorney told the Chicago Tribune. “The verdict has been upheld in its entirety.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, “The verdict is believed to be the first stemming from a whistleblower claim filed under the state ethics act, which sets out guidelines for behavior by employees and includes protection for employees who disclose activities they believe violate the act.”