Illinois Supreme Court Clarifies Statute of Limitations in Defamation Actions

On March 18, the Illinois Supreme Court issued a much awaited opinion finding that private investigator Paul Ciolino’s defamation lawsuit against Chicago attorney Terry Ekl among others was not filed too late. In their briefs before the Court, the parties framed the question in terms of whether or not the discovery rule delayed the beginning of the one-year statute of limitations. The Court held that Ciolino’s action was timely but based its decision not on the arguments proffered by the parties either side or on the reasoning of the appellate court.

The case centers on a book titled Justice Perverted: How the Innocence Project of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism Sent an Innocent Man to Prison and a later documentary titled “Murder in the Park.” The subject of both the book and the documentary was the effort to convict Alstory Simon of a 1983 double homicide on Chicago’s southeast side, one of the most famous murder cases in Illinois’ recent history. Ekl, an attorney who represented Simon in his post-conviction proceedings, is among those whose comments are featured in the documentary.

The book and documentary posit the theory that Ciolino and others framed Simon in order to secure the exoneration of Anthony Porter, who was originally targeted for the murders, and to ultimately bring about an end to the death penalty in Illinois. They claimed that Ciolino and a Northwestern journalism professor coerced Simon into confessing to the crimes for which Porter had been earlier convicted. Simon’s conviction was later overturned and he was ultimately cleared of the murders in 2013, after Ciolino was accused of impropriety in obtaining the confession.

Following the overturn of his conviction, Simon filed a federal civil rights lawsuit for malicious prosecution against Ciolino and others in 2015. Ciolino responded by filing a third-party complaint against Ekl and others asserting claims of defamation and conspiracy. The third-party complaint was dismissed in 2017, and Ciolino followed that by refiling his claims in Illinois state court within the one-year window allowed by the Illinois savings statute.

In the state court action, Ekl successfully argued at the trial court level that Ciolino’s lawsuit should be dismissed because Ciolino waited too long to bring his action. Ekl argued that the documentary was first screened at a film festival in New York in 2014, which meant that the one-year statute of limitations for defamation and false light claims expired in 2015 prior to Ciolino’s third-party complaint. However, Ciolino said he did not become aware of the documentary’s existence until 2015, when it was screened in Chicago and Cleveland. The First District Appellate Court later reversed the trial court’s decision, determining that the discovery rule applied which delayed the start of the running of the statute of limitations until Ciolino discovered the allegedly defamatory statements. As we wrote about here, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of that decision and heard arguments in the case earlier this year.

Although the parties primarily focused their arguments on the discovery rule and its limits, the Court’s opinion went another direction and examined whether the alleged defamation was subject to the single-publication rule. The Court noted that “Ekl, Ciolino, and the appellate court all appear to assume that the single-publication rule applies.” The Court, however, disagreed. Citing Winrod v. Time, Inc., a 1948 appellate decision and the “foremost Illinois case examining the single-publication rule,” the Court explained that the single-publication rule provides that a cause of action for defamation accrues for the purpose of the statute of limitations upon the first publication and reasonably connected subsequent publications do not accrue new causes of action.

In 1959, the Illinois legislature codified the single-publication rule by adopting the Uniform Single Publication Act, which provides in pertinent part:

No person shall have more than one cause of action for damages for libel or slander or invasion of privacy or any other tort founded upon any single publication or exhibition or utterance, such as any one edition of a newspaper or book or magazine or any one presentation to an audience or any one broadcast over radio or television or any one exhibition of a motion picture. 740 ILCS 165/1.

After explaining the single-publication rule, the Court then set about determining its application to the case. The Court ultimately found that it did not need to reach the parties’ arguments regarding the interplay between the single-publication rule and the discovery rule because the 2015 screening of the documentary did not fall within the ambit of the single-publication rule. Instead, it constituted a separate publication that accrued its own cause of action. As such, Ciolino’s 2015 suit was timely.

The Court’s full opinion is available here.

Lubin Austermuehle’s Elmhurst and Hinsdale defamation and slander lawyers have more than three decades 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 Elmhurst and Deerfield near Northbrook and Highland Park, we serve clients throughout Illinois and the Midwest region. You can contact us online here or call us on our toll-free number at 833-306-4933 or locally at 630-333-0333.

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