Monday, March 7, 2016

Violation of Ethics Act results in Punitive Damages against Public Employer

In Crowley v. Watson, 2016 IL App (1st) 142847 (March 2, 2016) Cook Co., 3d Div. (LAVIN the court upheld a judgment against Chicago State University which included a punitive damage award in the amount of two million dollars.  The plaintiff, an attorney for the University, alleged he was terminated because he reported illegal conduct by the University to the Illinois Attorney General (Whistle Blower Protection 5 ILCS 430/15-5 et seq.) and because he released certain “FOIA documents” as required by law.  The University claimed the Plaintiff and the President merely had a disagreement about release of the FOIA documents and that the Plaintiff was terminated for misuse of University resources and mismanagement following an independent audit of a department he administered.

The jury returned a judgment for the Plaintiff after 30 minutes of deliberation.  In addition to the punitive damage award the Plaintiff was also awarded double back pay of $960,000, pre-judgment interest of $60,000 and attorney fees of $318,000.  

In reviewing the claim for punitive damages against the University the Appellate Court said the University had waived its defense that punitive damages are statutorily barred.  The University did not raise the defense until its post trial motion.

The Court went on to find that “defendant’s position that the statute does not permit punitive damages in an Ethics Act violation case is demonstrably incorrect.”  The Court then reviewed the language of the Ethics Act and concluded that the Act allows the court to award “all remedies necessary” to make the State employee whole and “to prevent future violations” of the Act.

The University claimed it is immune from liability for punitive damages pursuant to sovereign immunity.  The Court rejected this claim stating that the State Tort Immunity Act was amended so the state could be made a defendant in actions involving the Ethics Act (745 ILCS 5/0.01 et seq.).  Consequently the state waived its sovereign immunity.

While the Local Governmental Tort Immunity Act protects local entities and local officials from punitive damage awards, this case illustrates public reaction to a public employer terminating an employee who reports illegal conduct or merely has a difference of opinion over the employee’s lawful duties:  Thirty minutes to deliberate and award over one million dollars in damages and attorney fees.