Judge Waller: NIU must pay lawyer fees

By Lindsey Salvatelli

DeKALB — Misty Haji-Sheikh, graduate student at large, has been awarded lawyer costs and fees in a suit she filed against NIU.

Haji-Sheikh requested DeKalb County Judge Bradley Waller award her $83,118.89 in court costs and lawyer fees for the lawsuit she filed against NIU and the Board of Trustees to block former President Doug Baker from receiving his $617,000 severance pay. The suit also sought to challenge the Board’s understanding of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Waller awarded Haji-Sheikh $55,946 in lawyer fees and $932.89 in court costs, according to court documents filed Friday.The sum to be paid was determined by “reasonableness” of the time Haji-Sheikh’s lawyer spent on the lawsuit between June 21 to October 27, as well as “supplemental fee requests” between Nov. 29 to Dec. 7.

Haji-Sheikh filed for an injunction against Baker’s severance pay June 27 after the presidential transition agreement was passed by the Board during a closed session, even though the agreement was not properly disclosed on the meeting agenda. Waller ruled this a violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act during a Nov. 22 summary judgment, saying the language in the agenda was misleading.

The Board revoted and approved Baker’s pay a second time Dec. 8.

The Illinois Auditor General, which exams government bodies compliance with state laws, also found NIU in noncompliance with the Open Meetings Act as a result of a “failure to provide sufficient detail in the agenda item … ,” according to its Friday audit report.

Waller spoke critically in his decision about the Board’s action to wait until after the Nov. 22 summary judgment to revote on Baker’s severance pay.

“[The Board] could have done a do-over once it was brought to its attention that this may have been an OMA violation,” Waller wrote in his March 28 decision. “It made the decision not do that until after this court’s decision. It chose to believe that OMA was not violated, thereby inviting a challenge to its decision.”

Wheeler Coleman, Board of Trustees chairperson, said during a Dec. 8 Board of Trustees meeting that the presidential transition agreement was awarded to prevent him from filing any legal “claims” against the university after his resignation.

“The Edgar County Watchdogs assisted in initially identifying the OMA violation and assisted in locating an attorney who would prosecute the lawsuit on my behalf,” Haji-Sheikh said in her Friday emailed statement. The Edgar County Watchdogs is an advocacy group that holds local government bodies accountable.

“I would also like to thank my lawyer Charles L. Philbrick and his law firm Rathje and Woodward,” Haji-Sheikh said in the email.