During its September term, the Illinois Supreme Court debated the scope of courts’ authority to intervene in academic investigations at the University of Illinois in order to require University officials to follow their own rules for such proceedings. Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court opinion in Leetaru v. Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois is here.

The plaintiff filed suit in Circuit Court, seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction to halt the University’s investigation of his alleged research misconduct. Although nearly all claims against the State must be brought in the Court of Claims, the plaintiff argued that the trial court could proceed because he was seeking only prospective injunctive relief to control the defendants’ future conduct. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss, holding that the plaintiff’s claim was subject to the Court of Claims Act, and the Circuit Court therefore lacked jurisdiction. The Appellate Court affirmed for two reasons: (1) the plaintiff’s request for an injunction was a “present claim” within the meaning of the Court of Claims Act; and (2) even if it was not, the plaintiff was arguing that the University’s conduct was wrongful, as opposed to entirely ultra vires.

Counsel for the plaintiff began the argument before the Supreme Court. According to counsel, the plaintiff was a graduate student at the University of Illinois and on a remarkable journey towards his degree when the University began its investigation. Plaintiff consulted the University’s policies and procedures governing research conduct and found that the process had three steps: assessment, inquiry and investigation, each with particular procedural guarantees. The University’s research officer is required to take custody of all the documentary evidence, and gives access to that evidence to the accused student, but in this case, that allegedly didn’t happen. Moreover, the plaintiff alleges that the University told the inquiry team not to interview the plaintiff about the allegations, even though the procedures manual says that the student should be interviewed. Counsel argued that the Court of Claims was an ineffective remedy because – although the Supreme Court has said nothing bars the Court of Claims from granting injunctions – the Court of Claims has repeatedly said it will not do so. Counsel argued that there is a clear exception to the Court of Claims Act carved out for solely prospective injunctive relief – an exception which the Supreme Court has noted at least three times.

Justice Burke asked whether counsel was arguing that an officer acts in excess of his or her authority whenever internal regulations aren’t followed. Counsel agreed that that was so, but Justice Burke then pointed out that Section 305-1 of the Court of Claims Act appears to bar suits against the University in Circuit Court. Counsel answered that plaintiff’s claim falls in none of the categories which must, pursuant to the Act, be brought in the Court of Claims. Justice Karmeier pointed out that the Court had said in 2005 that a state officer’s action in excess of his or her authority has the effect of stripping the officer of official status – meaning that the officer’s conduct was not that of the State. Counsel agreed that that was plaintiff’s theory.   Justice Karmeier noted that plaintiff conceded that the University had the authority to conduct its investigation, and asked whether plaintiff’s argument that an investigation in violation of the University’s written procedures amounted to conduct in excess of an officer’s authority was a legitimate distinction. Counsel commented that it could be a fine line in some cases, but this was not a close case. Counsel argued that the investigating officer’s authority was proscribed by the rules set forth in the University’s written policies. Justice Thomas asked counsel whether the plaintiff could file a claim for damages in the Court of Claims, and counsel conceded that such a claim was theoretically possible. Justice Thomas noted that plaintiff did have a remedy in the Court of Claims, just not the one he wants. Counsel responded that there is no real remedy in the Court of Claims, because that court won’t require the University to follow its own procedures. Chief Justice Garman asked where the line was between the University acting within its discretion and exceeding its authority. Counsel responded that while such a line might be difficult to find in some cases, this case was an easy call.

Counsel for the University began by arguing that management of the University’s academic affairs was among its core functions, and maintaining the integrity of those affairs is a matter of the highest importance. The plaintiff’s complaint, counsel argued, was an attempt to interfere with an authorized governmental function. Counsel argued that plaintiff’s position failed to distinguish between a government official acting in a wrongful manner, and one acting in excess of his or her authority. Merely carrying out an authorized function in a wrongful way is not enough to confer jurisdiction on the Circuit Court.   Justice Karmeier asked whether government officials should abide by their own procedures. Counsel responded that they should, but if they don’t, the claim goes to the Court of Claims. Justice Karmeier asked what relief would be available there, and counsel answered that plaintiff could seek damages for reputational harm, loss of employment opportunities, etc. Justice Karmeier pointed out that none of that would get the plaintiff his procedural rights. Counsel answered that plaintiff’s theory would support a claim for damages, but not injunctive relief.   Justice Karmeier suggested that plaintiff wasn’t trying to stop the investigation – he was insisting that it be done by the rules. Counsel answered that plaintiff has sought an injunction stopping the investigation. Chief Justice Garman asked what the line was between an exercise of discretion and exceeding one’s authority. Counsel answered that the University clearly had authority to investigate research misconduct.  Justice Karmeier asked whether it mattered how the University conducted the investigation, as long as they had the authority to undertake it. Counsel agreed it did matter, but said that was an issue for the Court of Claims.

Justice Karmeier asked how counsel would respond to the Supreme Court’s earlier comment that the government’s violations of the Constitution or laws of the state could be properly restrained by the courts. He suggested that the officers’ suit exception to sovereign immunity says that violating rules of procedure amounts to acting outside the scope of authority. Counsel again argued that simply alleging that an authorized investigation is being done in a wrongful matter doesn’t create jurisdiction. Justice Thomas asked how plaintiff could have filed for damages when he hadn’t been terminated yet. Counsel answered that typically, a complaint is filed and then stayed until an investigation is complete. Justice Thomas asked whether it was fair to say that the plaintiff couldn’t have gotten the relief he sought from the Court of Claims. Counsel responded that while it is likely that plaintiff would not have gotten an injunction from the Court of Claims, injunctions are not outside the court’s authority. Chief Justice Garman asked what the future consequences of endorsing the defendant’s theory might be. Counsel answered that case law would continue to move in the same direction, and that persons seeking to interfere with authorized government functions would have to proceed in the Court of Claims.

On rebuttal, Chief Justice Garman asked the plaintiff’s counsel the same question – what are the consequences of ruling for plaintiff? Counsel answered that there would be none – plaintiff wasn’t seeking to impose financial liability. Counsel argued that wrongfully apply the rules might be within a government official’s authority, but simply ignoring them isn’t. The case is about integrity, counsel argued. An award of damages would not remedy a prospective finding by the University that the plaintiff had violated its research integrity standards. Justice Karmeier asked whether plaintiff was seeking to stop the investigation, and counsel said he was not: plaintiff merely wanted a fair shot to get the information the charges were based on and mount a defense.

We expect Leetaru to be decided in four to five months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Kevin Dooley (no changes).