In the closing days of its May term, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide whether an academic at the University of Illinois could obtain injunctive relief from the Circuit Court to halt an ongoing University investigation into plaintiff’s alleged research misconduct. The Court allowed a petition for leave to appeal in Leetaru v. Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, a February 2014 decision of the Fourth District.

The plaintiff filed his complaint in February 2013, seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction to halt the University’s investigation of his research conduct. Plaintiff alleged that defendants’ investigation violated its policies and procedures in a variety of ways. According to the plaintiff, the court had the right to hear the case because he was seeking only prospective injunctive relief to control the defendants’ future conduct, rather than damages or enforcement of a present claim. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiff’s claim was directed against the State, and accordingly, the Court of Claims had exclusive jurisdiction over the claim.

The trial court denied the plaintiff’s motion for a temporary restraining order, and the Court of Appeal affirmed. The trial court then conducted a hearing on the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The defendant argued that the plaintiff’s allegations involved conduct that occurred as early as 2010 which had been the subject of an ongoing investigation since December 2011 with respect to plaintiff’s employment, and February 2012 with respect to plaintiff’s tenure as a graduate student. The plaintiff once again responded that he was only trying to enjoin the defendants from taking future actions in excess of their delegated authority. The trial court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss, holding that plaintiff’s claim was against the State within the meaning of the Court of Claims Act, since the plaintiff was seeking to stop defendants’ conduct which had already begun. The court also expressed its concern that its ruling could result in a future award of damages against the State based on issue preclusion.

The Appellate Court affirmed. The plaintiff was “asking the trial court to stop a research misconduct investigation midstream because defendants did not follow all of their own internal rules and procedures in conducting the investigation,” the Court wrote. The Court held that “this is a ‘present claim’ against the State over which the Court of Claims has jurisdiction, rather than the circuit court.” Even if the plaintiff’s complaint was not a “present claim,” the Court wrote, the circuit court would still lack jurisdiction because the plaintiff conceded that the University had the authority to make the investigation; it was how the school conducted the investigation that the plaintiff sought to control.

In the alternative, the plaintiff pointed to the University of Illinois Act, which provides that “a claim sounding in tort must be filed in the Court of Claims.” The plaintiff argued that this language necessarily meant that all other claims could be filed in the circuit court, citing City of Chicago v. Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois from the First District. The court declined to follow City of Chicago, holding that the Immunity Act rather than the empowering legislation or the Court of Claims Act governed whether the State must be sued in the Court of Claims, and the Immunity Act makes no distinction between tort and other types of claims.

We expect Leetaru to be decided in six to eight months.

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