An Illinois appeals court recently found a political candidate in Madison County could not be held liable for defamation for statements in a press release finding that the allegedly defamatory statements were privileged and thus immune from liability. Former Madison County IT director, Rob Dorman and former administrator Doug Hulme filed the lawsuit claiming that the press release statements were false and defamatory and ultimately cost them their jobs.
In April 2020, Robert Daiber, the Democrat candidate for county board chairman was identified as one of several local Democratic politicians calling for the dismissal of top officials in Madison county board chairman Kurt Prenzler’s administration. In the press release Daiber was quoted as saying “[a] criminal investigation by six law enforcement agencies has made it clear how extensive corruption and abuses of power are in the Prenzler administration. Madison County must act now to restore public trust by immediately dismissing the Prenzler aides who have committed these truly shocking actions.”
The press release also cited affidavits released from the investigation as providing “conclusive evidence that top aides . . . attempted a pay-for-play scheme by offering a county job to a congressional staff person in exchange for the appointment to a U.S. Attorney position of their political accomplice” and “a scheme to hack into and spy on e-mails of the Madison County judiciary and the offices of elected county officials (neither of which are under the jurisdiction of the County Chairman or County Board) for political purposes.”
Days after the publication of the press release Dorman and Hulme were fired from their positions with the county. Dorman filed suit against Daiber several months later and Hulme joined as a plaintiff shortly thereafter. In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege that the statements in the press release were false and defamatory and that they had been exonerated from any wrongdoing at the conclusion of the investigation and a subsequent probe by the Attorney General. Despite being exonerated, the plaintiffs alleged that the statements in the press release had caused them to lose their jobs.
Daiber responded to the accusations of libel by seeking to have the suit dismissed with prejudice and an award of sanctions against the plaintiffs. In his motion to dismiss, Daiber argued that the alleged defamatory statements contained in the press release were subject to multiple privileges which immunized him from defamation liability. The trial court agreed with Daiber and dismissed the suit with prejudice. Dorman and Hulme appealed the dismissal of their suit.
On appeal the Court identified three privilege that Diaber had asserted as protecting him from liability and analyzed their applicability to the alleged defamatory statements in the press release. First, the Court noted that Daiber had asserted that the allegedly defamatory statements were immune from liability because he was merely reporting on the acts of government, which the Illinois Supreme Court had ruled were privileged in Lulay v. Peoria Journal-Star, Inc. Next, the Court noted that Daiber had asserted he was entitled to immunity because he was reporting what was contained in official records, which had been identified as a category of privilege in Berkos v. National Broadcasting Company. The final privilege identified by the Court has having been asserted by Daiber was the privilege for statements made to a grand jury and to law enforcement, which Daiber argued applied because the press release was an amalgam of quotes distilled from statements made to law enforcement by other individuals.
After considering the applicability of the various privileges, the Court found that the trial court correctly found that Daiber’s statements contained in the press release were protected by privilege and he is entitled to immunity from suit. Accordingly, the Court held that the order dismissing the complaint with prejudice was properly granted by the trial court.
The Court’s full opinion is available here.
Lubin Austermuehle’s Chicago and Elmhurst libel and slander lawyers have more than thirty-five years of experience helping business clients unravel the complexities of Illinois and out-of-state defamation and First Amendment laws. Our Chicago slander, libel, and First Amendment litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. From offices in Oakbrook Terrace and Wilmette near Evanston and Highland Park, we serve clients throughout Illinois and the Midwest region. You can contact us online here or call us on our locally at 630-333-0333.