Illinois Capitol, seen from steps of Illinois Supreme Court, Springfield | Jonathan Bilyk
An Illinois appeals panel has ruled the Illinois state government can sue another Illinois state entity under the Illinois False Claims Act, in a suit alleging a downstate community college district gave the state the shaft by inflating credit hours of mining program students to extract extra grant money from Springfield.
The decision was delivered Aug. 14 by Justice Melissa Chapman, with concurrence from Justices Judy Cates and John Barberis Jr., of Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court in Mt. Vernon. The ruling favored an action brought by Phillip E. Edmondson, on behalf of the state of Illinois, against the Board of Trustees of Illinois Eastern Community Colleges.
Illinois Eastern is headquartered in Olney and operates four public community colleges. Edmondson taught mining safety courses from 2002 to 2013 for the school system.
Illinois Fifth District Appellate Justice Melissa Chapman | Illinoiscourts.gov
Edmondson alleged the college district defrauded the state by falsifying the number of credit hours completed by students in the mining program. The aim of the alleged scam was to secure extra grant money, which is doled out according to completed credit hours.
Edmondson sued the district in 2016 in St. Clair County Circuit Court, under the False Claims Act, which lets a private citizen with inside knowledge take action on behalf of the state, when the state has allegedly been defrauded. Although the citizen spearheads the suit, the state is the plaintiff. Such a citizen can collect part of any recovered funds.
The college district argued it could not be sued under the Act, because the district was not a “person” subject to liability as defined by the Act. The district also contended the state and district were the same entity, meaning the state could not sue itself.
St. Clair County Circuit Judge Stephen McGlynn ruled the district could be sued, prompting the district to ask the appellate court to determine whether the district was a “person.”
Justice Chapman agreed with McGlynn's reasoning.
Chapman noted the Act considers a community college district a state entity, but for purposes of the Act, a “person” must be the subject of the suit. However, Chapman concluded the district has the "ability to sue and be sued in its own name," which makes it a "person" under principles of Illinois law.
Chapman next found the U.S. Supreme Court has held local governments are "persons" that can defraud the federal government. Extrapolating this finding to the case at hand, Chapman noted the college district is a "local entity that receives state funding" and consequently is "no less able than individuals or private corporations” to defraud the state of Illinois.
Chapman drew attention to a 2017 ruling from Illinois First District Appellate Court that the False Claims Act is to "provide mechanisms to reveal and remedy fraud against governmental entities. It is not meant 'to protect a government entity engaging in fraud.'"
The justice pointed out the suit is "dispute between two types of governmental entities that have been recognized as separate entities with adverse legal interests in other contexts" and "appear to have adverse legal interests in this case as well."
Chapman also said the fact the college district and the state are separate entities is signified by the facts the district is in large part financially independent from the state, and chiefly performs local, not statewide, functions.
The board is defended by Polsinelli PC, which is based in Kansas City, Mo., and by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.
The state, through Edmondson, is represented by German May PC, a firm from Clayton, Mo.