October 31, 2020

Volume X, Number 305

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Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Whistleblower’s Multi-Million Dollar Award

On March 2, 2016, an Illinois Appellate court upheld a jury verdict awarding over $3 million to Plaintiff James Crowley (Plaintiff) on his whistleblower retaliation claim under the Illinois State Official and Employee Ethics Act (Ethics Act) (5 ILCS § 430/15-5, et seq.).  Crowley v. Watson, No. 1-14-2847 (Mar. 2, 2016). We previously reported on the progression of the case here and here.

Background

Plaintiff, a former Chicago State University (University) Senior Legal Counsel, had responsibilities that included reviewing contracts and processing FOIA requests. He alleged that the University retaliated against him after he (i) refused to withhold certain documents from FOIA requests inquiring about the University’s President, and (ii) reported his concerns about the FOIA requests and the University’s contracting practices to the Illinois AG’s Office.

A Cook County jury found that Plaintiff was retaliated against in violation of the Ethics Act and awarded him $480,000 in back pay and an additional $2 million in punitive damages.  Pursuant to the statute, the trial court doubled the back pay to $960,000, ordered the University to pay attorneys’ fees of $318,000, and awarded prejudgment interest in the amount of $60,000. The trial court also ordered the University to reinstate Plaintiff to his former position or provide “front pay” based on a $120,000 annual salary through the resolution of any appeals.

Appellate Court’s Ruling

The appellate court affirmed and held that punitive damages are indeed available under the Ethics Act. And it rejected the University’s position that it was immune from liability for punitive damages pursuant to the doctrine of sovereign immunity.  The court also held that the jury’s award did not violate the University’s due process rights as the University’s conduct was “thoroughly reprehensible” and the ratio between the compensatory and punitive damages award was entirely reasonable.

Implications

This ruling clarifies that punitive damages are indeed available under the Ethics Act and underscores the serious risks employers face under state whistleblower laws.

© 2020 Proskauer Rose LLP. National Law Review, Volume VI, Number 68
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About this Author

Steven J Pearlman, Labor Employment Law Firm, Proskauer Law firm
Partner

Steven Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and co-head of the firm's Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group, resident in the Chicago office. Steven’s practice focuses on defending complex employment litigation involving claims of discrimination and harassment, wage-and-hour laws and breaches of restrictive covenants (e.g., non-competition agreements). He has successfully tried cases to verdict before judges and juries in Illinois, Florida and California, and defended what is reported to be the largest Illinois-only class action in the history of the U.S....

312-962-3545
Edward C. Young, Proskauer Rose, Harassment Lawyer, Labor Rights Attorney
Associate

Edward C. Young is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department. He represents companies nationwide in a broad range of employment issues, including discrimination, retaliation and harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Family Medical Leave Act, as well as other federal and state employment statutes and various common law torts. In addition, Eddie represents employers in trade secret matters and challenges to the independent contractor status of workers.

...

312-962-3595
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