Supreme Court Summaries

Opinions filed January 20, 2012

 

 

Sandholm v. Kuecker, 2012 IL 111443

Appellate citation: 405 Ill. App. 3d 835.

 

      JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

      Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Freeman, Thomas, Garman, Karmeier, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

 

      The plaintiff in this Lee County lawsuit was hired to be head basketball coach at Dixon High School in 1999, and, in 2003, he was given the additional position of athletic director. On April 23, 2008, the school board voted to remove him from his position as basketball coach. Two days later, on April 25, he filed this civil action for damages, naming numerous defendants and alleging that they campaigned to have him removed because they did not like his coaching style. He claimed defamation per se, false light invasion of privacy, civil conspiracy to intentionally interfere with prospective business advantage, and slander per se.

      The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint as a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) under the Citizen Participation Act. They were successful in the circuit court and in the appellate court. The purpose of the SLAPP legislation is to protect citizens who are attempting to speak freely or petition their government from being harassed by retaliatory meritless lawsuits which are intended to chill the exercise of their constitutional rights and intended to impose burdensome expenses upon them. The special form of dismissal allowed for by this statute is a summary one, without discovery, and with attorney fees being allowed. The typical example of a SLAPP involves citizens who are complaining about zoning and who are sued by developers.

      The Illinois Supreme Court construed the statute to mean that, for a motion to dismiss as a SLAPP to succeed, the plaintiff’s claim must be solely based on the movant’s rights of petition, speech, association, or participation in government. Thus, where a plaintiff files suit genuinely seeking relief for alleged defamation or intentional torts, the lawsuit is not solely based on the defendant’s constitutional rights and is not subject to dismissal as a SLAPP. The Act is not intended to protect those who commit tortious acts and then seek refuge in the immunity conferred by this statute. The supreme court declined to read into the statute a new privilege concerning defamation where the legislature had not made clear an intent to do so. It is possible that the defendants could spread lies about the plaintiff while at the same time genuinely petitioning government for redress, but such a situation cannot support dismissal as a SLAPP.

      The facts of this case, as alleged in the pleadings, do not show that the plaintiff’s lawsuit was based solely on the defendants’ exercise of their constitutional rights. The supreme court said that, here, “the true goal of plaintiff’s claims is not to interfere with and burden defendants’ free speech and petition rights, but to seek damages for the personal harm to his reputation from defendants’ alleged defamatory and tortious acts.” Thus, the defendants have not met their burden of showing that they are entitled to a SLAPP dismissal.

      Both the circuit and appellate courts were reversed. On remand, the circuit court should consider any remaining grounds for dismissal raised by the defendants, including protected opinion, fair reporting privilege, and failure to plead the required elements, including actual malice.