Low profile, high impact: Illinois Court of Claims doles out more than $40 million a year
Each year, thousands of disputes make their way to a drab two-story, red-brick building in the shadow of the state Capitol. It's where contractors argue the state owes them money. Where crime victims seek compensation for losses. And where pardoned inmates ask for restitution.
It's also where a British company recently launched a $2.6 million lawsuit over thousands of flu shots Illinois ordered without getting approval from the feds. In fact, despite its relative obscurity, the Illinois Court of Claims doles out more than $40 million a year to resolve such disputes.
Furthermore, this quasi-judicial panel of seven attorneys appointed by the governor includes some high-profile Illinois political players: the Democratic chairman of St. Clair County, the wife of a longtime Democratic congressman, a top Kane County Democrat and a suburban attorney with ties to Rosemont's casino bid. The six judges each take home $50,893, while the chief justice earns $55,135. And the judges appoint up to 16 regional commissioners who each make $40,694 a year as hearing officers. Their ranks include the Democratic chairmen of Sangamon and Cook counties.
It's not surprising to see party loyalists on the court. For a part-time job, it pays pretty well. But a former chief justice of the Court of Claims argues the public shouldn't dwell on the partisan particulars. "What would we do, have the governor go to the phone book and take names out?" asks Andrew Raucci, an attorney and lobbyist. "Some [appointments] are based on recommendations and some are based on personal relationships over the years and so forth."
Raucci served on the court under three GOP governors. But he recalls that he was first appointed because he's a Democrat.
"I went to a Christmas party in 1983 of Gov. [James R.] Thompson's and he waved me over and said, 'I've got this opening on the Court of Claims. I don't have to have a Democrat-Republican balance, legally, but I try to and I'm going to appoint you to the Court of Claims.'
"And I said, 'Thank you, governor. Have a great Christmas because you just made a great Christmas for me.'"
Now, with all but one judge having been appointed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the court leans heavily Democratic. But that wasn't always the case.
Former GOP Gov. George Ryan's court appointees included Zack Stamp, an agency head and legislative affairs director for former Republican Gov. Thompson. Stamp is married to Diane Ford, a longtime legal counsel to the Ryan Administration. Among the commissioners during Ryan's tenure was Jeffrey Fawell, brother to Scott Fawell, the top Ryan aide who is assisting prosecutors in the federal corruption case against his former boss.
Stamp and Raucci both left the court last year when a new ethics law forced lobbyists off most state boards and commissions.
The salary he received was nothing to sneeze at, Raucci agrees. But the job comes with an ample workload.
Robert Sprague, the current chief justice, says he often spends evenings going over cases. During a recent five-hour stint, he says, he put only a small dent in the opinion he was drafting. And, while some cases are less complex than others, the court decides more than 10,000 of them a year.
"There's quite a bit of work on all the judges," Sprague says. "I guess I can't complain about the salary because I took the job knowing what it was."
Sprague, a Metro East trial lawyer, says he had never tried a case before the Court of Claims when he asked Blagojevich to make him a judge there. Sprague did serve as an associate circuit judge. He has practiced law for nearly four decades and has chaired the St. Clair County Democrats for 25 years.
"I think I was eminently qualified," he says. "And I'm sure being county chairman didn't hurt."
Perhaps it's not unusual that Sprague's first experience with the court was as a judge. Most lawyers try one case there during their entire careers, Raucci estimates. It's somewhat of a hybrid, part court, part administrative agency.
A fall on the Capitol steps, an accident with a state vehicle or a broken sidewalk at a state university can all land in the Court of Claims. But these disputes are settled on the state's terms.
The court is rooted in the doctrine of sovereign immunity, English common law that prohibits citizens from suing the government without its consent. Illinois lawmakers have relegated nearly all suits against the state to the Court of Claims. There, the state can control the size of most awards. And the largest settlements are subject to appropriation, meaning the General Assembly can opt to ignore court awards.
Illinois Issues examined dozens of cases — excluding crime victim claims, which are vetted by the attorney general — that the Court of Claims has resolved in the past two years. They were primarily disputes over state contracts, personal injury suits or wrongful imprisonment settlements, all of which received special appropriations from the legislature.
Those suits, often some of the most expensive to settle, represent less than 10 percent of the court's overall workload. Crime victim claims make up about half of the cases. And disputes over appropriations that disappeared when the state budget year rolled over occupy almost as much space on the docket. Those minor claims, some as small as a few dollars, can be paid from the court's regular annual budget.
Over the past five years, the court has settled an average of 11,287 cases a year, shelling out about $41.5 million annually.
Taken as a whole, the payout might seem generous. But examining individual cases can reveal some rather paltry sums.
Paul Terry and Michael Evans were both 17 when police on Chicago's South Side arrested them for the 1976 abduction, rape and murder of 9-year-old Lisa Cabassa. Both were convicted on the testimony of an eyewitness who changed her account at least twice and who had come forward to claim a well-publicized $5,000 reward, according to court documents. There was no other evidence and no established motive.
Terry was beaten and stabbed during his first year in prison. After eight years, he became despondent, refusing to leave his cell and disregarding personal hygiene.
He was transferred to a mental health ward.
Like Terry, Evans spent more than 26 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. DNA evidence exonerated both men in 2003. Gov. Blagojevich pardoned them in January. And this summer, each man was awarded $161,005.25, the most the court could assign for nearly three decades of wrongful imprisonment.
Most other awards are capped at $100,000, unless there was an accident involving a state vehicle. This exemption can create wide disparities in awards.
For instance, when a state trooper started a high-speed pursuit without flipping on his lights and siren, an innocent citizen paid the price. And the 1993 crash also cost the state.
It was the suspect he was chasing, not the trooper, who barreled down a Kennedy Expressway off-ramp at more than 90 mph, broadsiding Thaddeus Glodek's car and killing the 36-year-old father. But the trooper violated police protocol by not warning motorists with his lights and siren. So the court awarded $100,000 to Glodek's daughter. If the squad car had struck Glodek's vehicle, the compensation could have been much higher.
That was the case when the driver of a state-owned Dodge Ram accidentally backed into Adren Terry. The southern Illinois road construction worker was awarded $736,278.
Terry suffered head and leg injuries and lost teeth. In court documents, he said that he could no longer perform household chores. And that his alcohol intake had been "diminished to approximately two beers per week after the accident." In addition to medical bills and lost wages, Terry received $350,000 for pain and suffering and $250,000 for loss of normal life.
Such cases fall under the category of torts, instances when individuals claim to have been wronged by the state.
In 1990, for example, a carpenter working for a state mental health facility was fired after a cocaine arrest. He wanted his job back. The employee handbook he signed said he could be fired only if he used or possessed drugs "in such a manner as to bring adverse criticism on the department." But the newspaper article detailing his arrest didn't mention that he was a state employee, so he argued there was no adverse criticism. The court disagreed.
That case contrasts sharply with the story of Daniel Fricke, who had a legitimate beef with his employer, the Illinois Department of Transportation.
After a 1994 wrist injury suffered on the job, Fricke returned to work with a doctor's note saying he needed physical therapy and couldn't work the midnight shift for a while. When the department wouldn't accommodate the request, Fricke didn't show for work. His supervisor, Frank Cellini, told Fricke to return to his midnight shift or "face rougher and tougher" problems, according to court records.
Fricke was soon fired. No one ever told him why he couldn't work another shift. But Cellini appeared to be the "architect of Fricke's discharge," the court ruled. The state paid Fricke $95,921 for lost wages and benefits. He was later hired by another state office.
Unlike tort cases, there's no limit on awards for firms who claim the state broke a contract and still owes them money. While George Ryan was secretary of state, for example, he agreed to lease office space on Springfield's East Side from a group of his campaign contributors. But after Ryan became governor, his successor, Secretary of State Jesse White, abandoned the office at 1800 E. Adams St. with more than a year left on the lease.
"I think the feeling here was the building was a dump, that the heat wasn't working in the winter, the air conditioning wasn't working in the summer — not a very pleasant environment," says Dave Druker, White's spokesman.
The landlords, who haven't paid taxes on the property for nearly three years, sued White for $267,000 in rent and fees. Last year, the two sides settled for $200,000.
Similarly, in March, a British wholesaler filed a contract lawsuit over the $2.6 million in flu shots Gov. Blagojevich ordered without getting federal approval to bring the vaccine stateside. Illinois never received the 254,250 doses. They expired this summer. And, against the governor's wishes, Comptroller Dan Hynes has refused to pay Ecosse Hospital Products Ltd. for the vaccine. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has asked the court to dismiss the suit, a motion common in cases against the state. Even if the court agrees, Ecosse could file an amended claim to reopen the case.
In fact, with no appellate court to turn to, suits can bounce around the Court of Claims for years. Some are put on hiatus while the plaintiffs pursue related lawsuits in federal or circuit court. A personal injury and wrongful death lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Transportation, for example, was put on hold for seven years while the victims pursued a lawsuit in Cook County. The case was reopened in 1999 and last year the Court of Claims issued a $3.1 million award. But a month later, the state asked for a new hearing, reopening the case before the victims received any money.
It's that sort of back-and-forth that has incensed state Rep. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican. "The Court of Claims is the single most Kafkaesque bureaucracy I've ever seen," he says. "Whatever anger people get standing in line to get their driver's license reissued is inconsequential compared to what the Court of Claims does to citizens of the state of Illinois every day. It's unbelievable."
Rose points to the case of All States Environmental Services Inc. The state hired the company to clean up underground storage tanks at Willard Airport in Rose's district and at three other sites. The work began in 1994 and was done by 1996.
But insurance costs went over budget and All States sued to recover $871,000, plus interest.
This summer, the court awarded All States a fraction of that. David Waltrip, All States' attorney, says the judge overlooked key evidence, and he has asked for a rehearing. If that fails, All States will be out of options, stuck with a frustrating end to an eight-year ordeal.
In January, Rose filed legislation that would turn that sort of situation on its head. It would force the state to automatically forfeit all claims where the court doesn't issue a decision within four months of receiving all evidence.
The legislation went nowhere. No one even bothered to estimate how much it might cost the state.
"If you put in a rule like that, it's crazy. Nobody gets justice," says Sprague, the current chief judge. "You don't want to force us to make an opinion without thinking about it."
It's probably not in the best interest of the state either. "From the point of view of the defendant, speed isn't usually a goal," says Raucci, the former chief justice.
Clearing cases means more money out of state coffers. That helps explain the deliberate process and the $100,000 cap on most tort cases. And if a dispute rests solely with the state, plaintiffs have nowhere else to go. As a result, sometimes their suits seem to go nowhere.
There are still 15 open cases that were filed in the 1980s. Add those to 69,366 open claims from the 1990s and 60,456 since 2000, and the court has a healthy caseload to chew through.
Raucci says as chief justice he tried to cut down the docket by setting deadlines for commissioners to file reports and for judges to act upon them. He also convinced the General Assembly to let the court pay small claims out of general funds, rather than wait months to pay, say, a license plate refund, from the bank account where those fees are deposited.
"We were sending somebody a letter saying we've awarded you $30 and now you're going to wait 16 months to get your $30," Raucci says. "I mean, that was asinine."
And while he doesn't think much of Rep. Rose's proposal, the current chief justice says he's trying to speed up the process as well.
"Lawsuits aren't like wine," Sprague says. "They don't get better with age."
While time may not ripen its contents, the Court of Claims certainly can be considered a cellar of state government. Just looking up a case file requires a formal request under the state's public records law.
The flu shot lawsuit, for example, got public attention only after Comptroller Hynes alerted the media. Other big money lawsuits also have escaped scrutiny.
In April, the court dismissed a $20 million lawsuit against Blagojevich's Department of Central Management Services. The agency canceled a lease with The TEEJ Group Inc., a Chicago company that couldn't get a South Side welfare office built in time to honor a 10-year, $5.9 million lease signed under former Gov. Ryan.
The firm, headed by the daughter of a Ryan agency director, blamed the delay on problems purchasing land from the city of Chicago. The Court of Claims ruled The TEEJ Group must sue the city before it can take on the state.
In another case, the court has yet to decide a $15.5 million lawsuit brought by the Illinois Harness Horsemen's Association. Lawmakers left the racing group's annual subsidy out of the state budget three years ago.
And earlier this year, a former inmate diagnosed with a rare bone tumor filed a $10 million lawsuit alleging 18 months of neglect by state prison physicians.
Of course, the size of these lawsuits must be put into context. Since 2001, the court's largest payout was just over $2 million. It went to a handful of nursing homes that hired the Chicago law firm of Winston & Strawn to recover dollars the state owed them for providing care to the poor.
These are some of the disputes that settle into the cellar known as the Court of Claims, a place that seldom draws the public's eye. For taxpayers, the consolation may be that, unlike fine wine, these lawsuits tend to decline in price the longer they're left in the dark.
Theresa Johnson-Hughes didn't have a building or a place to put it when former Gov. George Ryan allowed her to sign a $5.9 million state lease.
As the daughter of a Ryan appointee, Johnson-Hughes needed special permission from the governor before doing business with the state.
That was no problem. Buying the land proved more difficult. It took more than two years of haggling with the city of Chicago. By then, Ryan was no longer governor. And the new administration lost interest in the proposed South Side welfare office.
The case shows how an insider deal brokered by one administration can fall apart under the next. Johnson-Hughes never saw a cent. So she sued the state for $20 million.
The Court of Claims dismissed the breach of contract lawsuit in April, ruling Johnson-Hughes must sue the city before she can take on the state.
The lease, finalized in September 2002, called for the state Department of Human Services to move into a new office in July 2003, five months before the Chicago City Council finally sold Johnson-Hughes the land at 4810 S. Cottage Grove.
Johnson-Hughes is the daughter of Gertrude Jordan, Ryan's director of Employment Security. According to state records, Johnson-Hughes owned a 70 percent stake in the 10-year $5.9 million lease signed with the Ryan Administration.
She claims the Blagojevich Administration canceled the lease over the objections of Carol Adams, the governor's director of Human Services.
"The bottom line," says Justin DeJong, spokesman for Blagojevich's Department of Central Management Services, "is that The TEEJ Group did not meet the provisions of the contract that had been established and, as a result, the state canceled the contract."
Johnson-Hughes could not be reached for comment. Her company, The TEEJ Group Inc., does not have a listed phone number.
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This quasi-judicial panel of seven attorneys appointed by the governor includes some high-profile Illinois political players. Chief Judge Robert J. Sprague is paid $55,135, and other panelists take home a $50,893 salary.
Peter J. Birnbaum
Appointed: January 2004
by Gov. Blagojevich
Birnbaum is CEO of the Attorneys' Title Guaranty Fund Inc., which provides title insurance to lenders and homebuyers. The fund has given $21,450 to Blagojevich's campaign fund.
Norma S. Finley-Jann
Appointed: February 2001
by Gov. Ryan
Finley-Jann works for Irwin G. Jann & Associates.
Her husband, Irwin Jann, has given $3,500 to Ryan's campaign fund and $5,000 to Blagojevich's fund.
James L. Kaplan
Appointed: January 2005
by Gov. Blagojevich
Kaplan chairs the Illinois Board of Higher Education, a nonsalaried post. He and his Chicago law firm, Kaplan & Sorosky Ltd., have given $15,866 to Blagojevich's campaign fund.
Rose Marie Lipinski
Appointed: March 2004
by Gov. Blagojevich
Lipinski is the wife of longtime U.S. Rep. William Lipinski, a Chicago Democrat. William Lipinski has contributed $7,840 to Blagojevich's campaign fund.
Robert J. Sprague
Appointed: February 2003
by Gov. Blagojevich
Sprague chairs the St. Clair County Democrats. The organization has contributed $28,755 to Blagojevich's campaign fund.
Robert J. Steffen
Appointed: March 2004
by Gov. Blagojevich
Home: Sleepy Hollow
Steffen is vice chairman of the Kane County Democrats. In 2002, he unsuccessfully challenged state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, an Elgin Republican. Steffen has contributed $2,000 to Blagojevich's campaign fund.
Donald J. Storino
Appointed: March 2004
by Gov. Blagojevich
Storino's Rosemont law firm, Storino, Ramello & Durkin, has contributed $19,807 to Blagojevich's campaign fund.
Illinois Issues, September 2005