Crowley v. Watson

Decision Date02 March 2016
Docket NumberNo. 1–14–2847.,1–14–2847.
Citation401 Ill.Dec. 876,51 N.E.3d 69
Parties James CROWLEY, Plaintiff–Appellee, v. Wayne WATSON, Individually, and in His Capacity as University President; and The Board of Trustees of Chicago State University, Leon D. Finney, Jr., Richard L. Toliver, Betsy Hill, Julie C. Samuels, Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott, Lisa Morrison Butler, and Gary L. Rozier, in Their Capacity as the Board of Trustees of Chicago State University, Defendants–Appellants.
CourtUnited States Appellate Court of Illinois

Michael Resis and Ellen L. Green, both of SmithAmundsen LLC, of Chicago, for appellants.

Anthony Pinelli and Susan M. Pavlow, both of Chicago, for appellee.


Justice LAVIN

delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion:

¶ 1 After a lengthy jury trial, plaintiff James Crowley (Crowley) prevailed in his wrongful termination case stemming from an alleged violation of the Illinois State Officials and Employees Ethics Act (Ethics Act) (5 ILCS 430/1–1 et seq.

(West 2008)). The jury awarded back pay of $480,000 and punitive damages of $2 million. The jury further found that he was entitled to be reinstated to his position at Chicago State University (CSU). Pursuant to the statute, in dealing with the compensatory damages verdict, the trial court doubled the back pay to $960,000, ordered defendants to pay attorney fees of $318,173.33, and awarded prejudgment interest in the amount of $60,000 for a total of $1,338,173.33. The trial court also ordered defendants to either reinstate Crowley to his position or provide “front pay” in an amount to be determined after the promised appeal. Defendants declined to reinstate Crowley.

¶ 2 Defendants filed this interlocutory appeal, contending in the main that, as an attorney, Crowley was not legally qualified to bring an action for retaliatory discharge, while alternatively arguing that punitive damages were not statutorily authorized or that the trial court should have ordered a remittitur. Defendants also contend they are entitled to a new trial due to a juror's dishonest answers during voir dire. A number of state universities in Illinois, as amici, have filed a brief opposing the imposition of punitive damages in this case as a matter of law and policy.


¶ 4 We recite only those facts necessary to determine the dispositive issues in this appeal. Crowley was a licensed lawyer who had worked at several legal jobs before accepting employment at CSU on Chicago's South Side. He was initially hired as an attorney, where his duties included handling Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 ILCS 140/1 et seq.

(West 2008)) requests, but later segued into an administrative position where he managed several departments including the Follett bookstore and the Patricia and Emil Jones Convocation Center (JCC) while continuing to handle FOIA requests. Crowley's employment was without incident until 2009, when it was announced that defendant Dr. Wayne Watson was hired to become president of CSU.

¶ 5 Watson had just finished a job as the head of the Chicago City Colleges and planned to draw his state pension. Shortly after the announcement of the CSU job, it was discovered that, in order to begin receiving pension payments from the State University Retirement Systems (SURS), the rules required him to have a three-month gap between state jobs. During the gap, amidst significant public controversy about the merits of Watson's appointment, allegations arose that focused on Watson's alleged use of state funds to renovate the so-called “presidential residence” while making decisions at CSU when he was not yet officially in office. During this period, in the view of all parties at trial, Watson was not a CSU employee and thus could not authorize any sort of activity at the university.

¶ 6 Numerous FOIA requests were received by CSU from curious citizens (including a rather prolific document requester named Phillip Beverly, a tenured political science professor at CSU) which called for, inter alia, any documents concerning Watson's hiring and the work at the residence. Crowley went about the task of collecting all documents that he believed would be responsive to these numerous requests.

¶ 7 Soon thereafter, Watson (who was still not yet president) asked Crowley to meet on August 13, 2009, in the president's office with himself and interim president, Dr. Sandra Westbrooks. Suffice it to say that the testimony of Crowley and Watson, the two principal protagonists at trial, was quite divergent about this meeting. When Crowley entered the president's office, he saw Watson with the pile of documents that Crowley had determined would be responsive to the FOIA requests. Crowley had not provided these documents to Watson. Crowley testified that Watson badgered him repeatedly during this hour-long meeting and suggested that only two pages (a moving company's bill) needed to be produced to satisfy the FOIA requests. Crowley, meanwhile, insisted that the entire pile of documents was going to be produced. According to Crowley, Watson demanded that nothing be produced without his personal review, despite the notable facts that Watson was not yet an employee and that it was Crowley's job to fully respond to FOIA requests. Crowley testified that a rather animated Watson grabbed his wrist and told him that “if you read this my way, you're my friend. If you do it your way, you're my enemy.”

¶ 8 Watson, contrarily, testified that he merely offered the opinion that only the moving bill should be produced, which simply led to further “discussion.” He emphasized that he was not directing Crowley to do anything, since he was not yet in office, and went on to note that he respectfully addressed Crowley as “counselor,” while reassuring him that the disclosure decision was Crowley's to make. He specifically denied both the claimed physical contact and the content of the alleged threat. Watson also denied that he instructed Crowley to contact a friendly journalist for damage control purposes.

¶ 9 This meeting unsettled Crowley and prompted him to meet with Louis Dolce, an investigator for the Illinois Attorney General's Office to discuss the documents, as well as Watson's objection and Watson's not-so-veiled threat. Crowley alerted the investigator to documents that he believed established that there was illegal “stringing” of contracts between CSU and another contractor with ties to Watson to make it appear that each contract was under the amount which called for competitive bidding. Crowley later spoke with another Attorney General investigator, James Dorger, who testified that the allegation of stringing was meritorious based on his investigation.

¶ 10 Meanwhile, SURS denied Watson's bid for pension benefits, prompting him to file an appeal which was set for the last week in January 2010. At the end of Watson's pension hearing, it was determined that no decision would be made until the FOIA documents were produced. Crowley ultimately released all documents responsive to the FOIA request as required by law.

¶ 11 The jury heard testimony about a “scheduled audit” at CSU for the fiscal year that ended June 20, 2009. The audit was conducted by John Meehan, the chief internal auditor for the JCC, which fell under Crowley's responsibilities. Meehan found inadequate supporting documentation for certain disbursements. He also noted that some of the travel requests by Crowley should have been authorized by senior management. He further noted issues with regard to parking spaces at the JCC, which were paid for by CSU, without any specific proof of who parked in those spaces. Testimony revealed that one of these spaces was used by Crowley and one by a student named Jackson. According to CSU's rules, Jackson's space was appropriately paid for by CSU since he worked for VenuWorks, a vendor that managed events at the JCC. Crowley's space, on the other hand, needed additional approval that was not documented.

¶ 12 Later, on January 28, 2010, Meehan, “at the request of senior management,” began a separate investigation and unscheduled audit of the “financial and operational records” of the JCC. Meehan testified that he could not recall who in senior management made the request. His report concluded that there were shortcomings in the required “accounting policies and procedures” from the JCC. Defendants repeatedly referred to Meehan's work as a “400 page book” that had proof of “63 findings” of irregularities at the JCC attributable to Crowley.

¶ 13 To Crowley, these efforts constituted a thinly veiled effort to find pretextual bases to fire him. Crowley asserted he was terminated in retaliation for contacting the Attorney General's office and disclosing information he reasonably believed was a violation of the law, rules, or regulations and also for providing SURS with the FOIA responses. See 5 ILCS 430/15–10(1)

, (2) (West 2008). His one-count lawsuit1 relied on article 15, the Whistle Blower Protection section of the Ethics Act, which prohibits retaliatory action against a state employee's involvement in protected activity, including disclosing or providing information in a particular manner. See 5 ILCS 430/15–10 (West 2008). He sued Watson individually, in his capacity as CSU president, and sued the CSU board of trustees. Crowley later conceded he sought punitive damages only against CSU. Defendants, meanwhile, suggested that there was no relationship between the FOIA issue and the subsequent investigation, and that Crowley was terminated because of issues raised in the investigation itself (i.e., improper financial dealings and misuse of university resources).

¶ 14 Nothing in Meehan's investigation addressed any of Crowley's responsibilities as an attorney for CSU. Instead, the inquiry focused solely on his administrative work with respect to the JCC. In sum, defendants claimed that the investigation showed various transgressions by Crowley, including the inappropriate use of university funds to pay for parking spaces...

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1 books & journal articles
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