On March 2, 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, affirmed a substantial jury verdict in an Illinois wrongful termination lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that his employment was terminated in retaliation for contacting the Illinois Attorney General’s office and reporting information that he believed was a legal violation as well as for providing responses to a Freedom of Information Act request. Crowley v. Watson, et al., 2016 IL App (1st) 142847 (3/2/2016). The plaintiff is an attorney who worked for Chicago State University. His wrongful discharge lawsuit was based on the Whistle Blower Protection section of the Illinois Ethics Act, which prohibits retaliatory action against a state employee for his or her protected activity, including the disclosure of legal violations to a public body. The First District noted that the claim is analogous to the Illinois common law tort of retaliatory discharge, which is an exception to the general rule of employment at-will in Illinois. Under Illinois law, there is a cause of action for retaliatory discharge where an employee is discharged in retaliation for engaging in protected activities, in violation of a clear public policy mandate.
The Illinois Supreme Court specifically approved the recovery of punitive damages for the tort of retaliatory discharge. In this case, the Illinois Appellate Court found that the jury’s award of punitive damages in the amount of $2 million was within reason. The purpose of punitive damages is to punish and deter violations against public policy. The purpose of a back pay award is to make the employee whole with respect to salary, raises, sick leave, vacation pay, and benefits. The jury awarded the plaintiff back pay of $480,000, which the trial court doubled to $960,000 (to compensate the plaintiff for the collateral consequences resulting from a lack of income), attorneys’ fees of $318,173, and prejudgment interest in the amount of $60,000, for a total of $1,338,173 (in addition to the punitive damages). The trial court also ordered the defendants to either reinstate the plaintiff to his position or provide him with front pay. The appellate court affirmed the judgment of the trial court in all respects.