A Chicago University employee has been awarded $2.5 million in back pay and damages in an employment law dispute that could see the employee, fired for whistleblowing, receive even more money.
The whistleblowing verdict is the first filed under the ethics act enacted in 2003 which set out guidelines for behaviour by state employees and the employee, former Chicago State senior legal counsel James Crowley (pictured) was allegedly fired in retaliation for his alleging misconduct by top university officials.
“We’re not aware of another judgment like this,” said Attorney General Spokeswoman Natalie Bauer, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The lawsuit by alleged that he was fired in February 2010 after he refused to withhold documents about university President Wayne Watson’s employment that were requested by a faculty member under the state’s public records law. Crowley also claimed that he was retaliated against after reporting questionable contracts to the Attorney General’s office.
A university attorney argued in court that Crowley was fired for misusing university resources, including reserved parking spaces, using preferential treatment in awarding a scholarship to a student, and purchasing an airline ticket and hotel room for a student to attend a conference.
But a jury last week agreed with Crowley’s version of events and awarded him $2 million in punitive damages and $480,000 in back pay from the last four years. It also ordered that he be reinstated to his job. Cook County Circuit Court Judge James McCarthy is scheduled to rule March 11 whether to double the amount of back pay and require the university to pay interest, both of which are included as remedies under the ethics law. McCarthy also is expected to decide whether Chicago State should pay Crowley’s attorneys’ fees.
Crowley’s lawsuit was against the university, a public institution with 5,700 students on the city’s South Side; its president, Wayne Watson; and the seven trustees who were on the university board in 2010. The trial, which included testimony from Watson, lasted two weeks. A 14-member jury deliberated for less than an hour before delivering the verdict Feb. 18.
“I’m very grateful to be free of the false allegations made against me by the Watson administration, and that have negatively affected my career for the past four years. Hopefully, this prevents them from treating other employees as badly as they’ve treated me,” Crowley wrote in a statement to the Tribune. “I also hope my case encourages not only employees of Chicago State, but all state employees, to report any wrongdoing to the proper state agency and know that they are protected.”
Chicago State University said it will appeal. The university’s insurance policy will cover the damages, said Chicago State spokesman Thomas Wogan.