THE STATE OF ILLINOIS ex rel. PHILLIP E. EDMONDSON, Plaintiff-Appellee,
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF ILLINOIS EASTERN COMMUNITY COLLEGES, Defendant-Appellant.
from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County. No. 16-CH-198.
Honorable Stephen P. McGlynn, Judge, presiding.
Attorneys for Appellant Mary Clare G. Bonaccorsi, Britton L.
St. Onge, Polsinelli P.C., Noam B. Fischman, Polsinelli P.C.
Attorney for Appellee David B. Helms, German May PC
JUSTICE CHAPMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with
opinion. Justices Cates and Barberis concurred in the
judgment and opinion.
1 The relator, Phillip E. Edmondson, filed this action under
the Illinois False Claims Act (740 ILCS 175/1 et
seq. (West 2014)). The defendant, the Board of Trustees
of Illinois Eastern Community Colleges, is a community
college district. The definition of the "State" in
the False Claims Act includes community college districts.
Id. § 2(a). The defendant filed a motion to
dismiss, arguing that the court lacked subject matter
jurisdiction. The trial court denied the motion. The
defendant filed a motion to reconsider or, alternatively, to
certify a question for review. See Ill. S.Ct. R. 308(a) (eff.
July 1, 2017). The court certified the following question for
our review: "Can an entity defined as the
'State' under the Illinois False Claims Act also be
considered a 'person' liable to the State under that
same Act?" We hold that an entity included in the False
Claims Act's definition of the "State" is also
a "person" that may be held liable to another such
entity unless the two entities are, in reality, one entity.
We therefore answer the certified question in the
affirmative, and we affirm the trial court's ruling.
2 I. BACKGROUND
3 The defendant in this case is a community college district
that includes four community colleges. According to the
allegations in the relator's complaint, the majority of
the students who attend these four colleges live within the
district. The complaint also alleges that the defendant board
of trustees is locally elected and that the defendant
receives the majority of its funding from tuition, fees, and
local taxes. However, the defendant also receives state
funding through grant programs. The issue in the
relator's complaint is the defendant's eligibility
for the amount of grant money it received.
4 The relator is a former instructor in the defendant's
Workforce Education program. He taught mine safety training
classes. Miners are required to take eight hours of safety
training annually under both state and federal law. The
relator taught these classes for the defendant between 2002
5 In 2016, the relator filed a complaint against the
defendant under the Illinois False Claims Act (740 ILCS 175/1
et seq. (West 2014)). He alleged that the defendant
defrauded the State of Illinois by claiming that miners took
mine safety classes they never actually took and by inflating
the number of hours of training received by miners who did
take the classes. The relator explained that the defendant
received funding under three state grant programs. He
explained that the amount of funding community college
districts qualify for under all three programs depends on the
number of credit hours (or the equivalent) completed by its
students. He alleged that because the defendant fraudulently
overstated the hours of training miners received, it received
substantially more funding than it was entitled to under the
three grant programs.
6 The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the relator's
complaint. The defendant argued, as it does in this appeal,
that because it falls within the broad statutory definition
of the "State," the case does not present a
justiciable controversy between two different parties with
adverse interests. As such, the defendant argued, the trial
court lacked jurisdiction to consider the case. The court
denied the motion.
7 The defendant filed a motion to reconsider or, in the
alternative, to certify a question for interlocutory review
under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 308 (eff. July 1, 2017).
The court denied the motion to reconsider but granted the
motion to certify a question. As stated previously, the
question certified for our review is: "Can an entity
defined as the 'State' under the Illinois False
Claims Act also be considered a 'person' liable to
the State under that same Act?" We turn our attention
now to answering that question.
8 II. ANALYSIS
9 When deciding an appeal under Illinois Supreme Court Rule
308, the scope of our review is limited to answering the
certified question. People ex rel. Levenstein v.
Salafsky, 338 Ill.App.3d 936, 941-42 (2003). Because
certified questions present issues of law, we apply a de
novo standard of review. Id. at 942. Resolution
of the question presented in this case requires us to
construe provisions of the False Claims Act. Our goal in
doing so is to ascertain the intent of the legislature. The
best indication of legislative intent is the statutory
language itself. Id. If that language is clear and
unambiguous, it must be given its plain and ordinary meaning.
If there is any ambiguity, however, we may consider aids of
statutory construction such as legislative history.
Id. We must also presume that the legislature did
not intend an unjust or absurd result. Township of
Jubilee v. State of Illinois, 2011 IL 111447, ¶ 36.
10 The False Claims Act provides that "any person"
is liable to the State if that person knowingly presents a
false or fraudulent claim to the State. 740 ILCS 175/3(a)(1)
(West 2014). The statutory definition of "claims"
includes demands or requests for money or property presented
to agents or officials of the State and, under certain
circumstances, requests for money or property made to
recipients of State funds. Id. § 3(b)(2)(A)(i),
(ii). A private relator may file a civil action for
violations of the False Claims Act. Id. §
4(b)(1). The relator has the right to conduct the action if
the Attorney General declines to do so (id. §
4(b)(4)(A), 4(c)(3)) and is entitled to be awarded a portion
of any eventual recovery (id. § 4(d)). However,
actions by private relators must be brought in the name of
the State (id. § 4(b)(1)), and the State is the
real party in interest in such actions (see State ex rel.
Beeler, Schad & Diamond, P.C. v. Burlington Coat Factory
Warehouse Corp., 369 Ill.App.3d 507, 513 (2006)).
11 Originally, the False Claims Act's definition of the
"State" included only the State of Illinois. See
Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 127, ¶ 4102. It now provides a
broad statutory definition of the "State," which
includes the State of Illinois, state agencies, and the state
university system, as well as several types of local
entities-school districts, community college districts,
counties, municipalities, municipal corporations, and units
of local government. 740 ILCS 175/2(a) (West 2014). The
defendant, as a community college district, falls within this
broad definition. There is no doubt that a private relator
can bring a False Claims Act suit to recover damages on
behalf of a local entity like the defendant that is included
in that definition. See Lyons Township ex rel.
Kielczynski v. Village of Indian Head Park, 2017 IL App
(1st) 161574, ¶ 14. The question in this case is whether
the broad definition of the "State" means that an
entity such as the defendant cannot be a "person"
subject to liability under the False Claims Act in cases
where it is alleged to have made fraudulent claims against
another entity that is also included in that definition.
12 The False Claims Act does not define the term
"person." Under general principles of Illinois law,
however, individuals and "bodies politic and
corporate" may be included within the definition
of" '[p]erson.'" 5 ILCS 70/1.05 (West
2014). The Public Community College Act provides that
"[t]he board of each community college district is a
body politic and corporate" that "may sue and be
sued in all courts and places where judicial proceedings are
had." 110 ILCS 805/3-11 (West 2014). Thus, for most
purposes, a community college district such as the defendant
is a "person" under Illinois law.
13 As we have already discussed, however, under the False
Claims Act, both the State of Illinois, which is the real
plaintiff in this case, and the defendant are included within
the statutory definition of the "State." The
defendant argues that, giving this statutory definition its
plain and unambiguous meaning, the State of Illinois and the
defendant must be deemed to be the same entity. As the
defendant correctly points out, a controversy between parties
that are, in reality, the same entity is not a justiciable
matter due to "the long-recognized general principle
that no person may sue himself." United States v.
Interstate Commerce Comm'n, 337 U.S. 426, 430
(1949). It is worth noting that, ordinarily, a suit by a
community college district against a state agency is
considered a justiciable controversy between separate
entities. See, e.g., Board of Trustees of Community
College District No. 502 v. Department of Professional
Regulation, 363 Ill.App.3d 190 (2006). The question
before us, then, is whether the broad statutory definition of
the "State" found in the False Claims Act is
sufficient to transform what are otherwise two distinct
entities-the State of Illinois and a local community college
district-into one entity for purposes of False Claims Act
liability. If our answer to that question is yes, then we
would have to conclude that the trial court lacks
jurisdiction over the relator's suit. See Ill. Const.
1970, art. VI, § 9 (providing that Illinois circuit
courts have jurisdiction over "all justiciable
matters"). For the reasons that follow, however, we
conclude that the answer to this question is no.
14 The defendant argues that by including local entities such
as community college districts in the broad statutory
definition of the "State," the legislature clearly
evinced an intent to exclude them from liability under the
False Claims Act. In support of this contention, the
defendant correctly notes that the legislature is presumed to
understand existing case law when it enacts legislation. See
Guzman v. 7513 West Madison Street, Inc., 2013 IL
App (1st) 122161, ¶ 37. The defendant argues that we
must therefore presume that the legislature understood the
principle that a party cannot sue itself when it enacted the
current version of the statute defining the
"State." As such, the defendant argues, we must
also presume that the legislature knew that the effect of
including various state and local entities in the ...