We previously wrote about Chicago Bears legend Richard Dent’s lawsuit seeking the identities of individuals who he alleges defamed him and cost him and his company to lose a lucrative contract. Dent initially lost at the trial court level but won in the appellate court. The Illinois Supreme Court then agreed to consider the case. In its recent opinion, the Court ruled against Dent finding that he is not entitled to discovery to determine the names of people that he claims wrongly accused him of sexual harassment and drunken behavior in the course of an investigation, which ultimately cost him and his company a lucrative marketing contract with an energy supplier.
Justice Michael J. Burke wrote the majority opinion, which was joined by everyone but Justices Rita Garman, P. Scott Neville, and Anne Burke, who took no part in the decision. Justice Garman penned a dissenting opinion which was joined by Justice Neville.
As we previously wrote about, the case revolves around the March 2019 Rule 224 petition filed in the Cook County Circuit Court by Dent and his company, RLD Resources, seeking discovery related to the identity of certain individuals the petitioners claimed defamed Dent. In their petition, the petitioners asked the judge to order energy supplier Constellation to disclose the names and addresses of at least three individuals who allegedly defamed Dent.
The trial court dismissed the Rule 224 petition with prejudice sua sponte ruling that the rule is satisfied when a petitioner has identified someone who may be sued. The trial court found that Dent and his company knew the identities of Constellation, so they did not need further discovery to identify someone who could be sued. The appellate court reversed finding that the trial court wrongly blocked Dent from obtaining the discovery he sought.
Before the Supreme Court, the justices were divided over the role of qualified privilege in preventing Dent from learning the identity of his accusers, and whether application of the privilege could be invoked in a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The majority explained that, “qualified privilege in Illinois defamation law is based on a policy of protecting honest communications of misinformation in certain favored circumstances in order to facilitate the availability of correct information.” And further explained that, “a privileged communication is one that might be defamatory and actionable except for the occasion on which, or the circumstances under which, it is made.”
To overcome qualified privilege, Dent would have to prove direct intent to injure him or a reckless disregard of his rights or the resulting consequences to him. Without qualified privilege though, Dent would only need to show his accusers acted negligently.
The majority cited with agreement the 1999 opinion of Vickers v. Abbott Laboratories, which established that “a qualified privilege exists in cases alleging defamation in the context of workplace sexual harassment allegations.” The allegations against Dent did involve workplace events, the Court reasoned.
A woman, who was identified in court documents as “Person A,” allegedly accused Dent of making sexually explicit comments at a Constellation-sponsored golf outing near Philadelphia and groping her two years later at another Constellation-sponsored golf outing in Chicago. A man, identified in court documents as “Person B,” also allegedly told Constellation that, at the same event, “he had observed Dent” in a “drunk and disorderly” state while “collecting the golf materials” for the Constellation golf outing. The accusations from these two individuals triggered an investigation by Constellation resulting in a report written by “Person C.” These accusations allegedly were the cause of Constellation’s decisions to terminate its contracts with Dent and his company in October 2018.
Dent argued that qualified privilege was not implicated in the statements by Persons B and C since it had been revealed that these individuals had not witnessed any alleged sexual harassment. In the course of the litigation, Constellation had revealed that Person B was a Constellation employee who made his statements in the course of investigating Person A’s accusations against Dent. It also revealed that Person C was not an individual actually but a group of attorneys that Constellation had hired to further investigate Person A’s accusations.
The Court shot down this argument that qualified privilege covered only statements by those who actually observed the alleged harassment being investigated. “Privilege protects the investigation,” the Court explained, which included those investigating the accusations. Similarly, the Court rejected Dent’s argument that his allegation in the Rule 224 Petition that Person A’s accusations were entirely false defeated any qualified privilege that may have existed. “Allowing a conclusory denial to overcome qualified privilege,” the Court succinctly explained, “would, in essence, eviscerate the privilege.” In the end, the Court reversed the appellate court and reinstated the trial court’s decision.
The dissent expressed concern that the Court’s decision would make it all but impossible for those like Dent to defend themselves against allegedly defamatory accusations. According to the dissent, “the majority opinion essentially treats the qualified privilege as an absolute privilege, which in turn endows a private company and its third-party investigators with quasi-judicial status and impermissibly deprives a class of individuals of the ability to restore their reputations following investigations that arguably lack procedural safeguards.”
The Court’s full opinion is available online here.
Our DuPage County defamation attorneys near Wheaton represent and prosecute defamation claims on behalf of individuals and businesses throughout the Chicagoland area including in Lisle and Downers Grove who have been unfairly and falsely defamed online and offline. We have successfully represented businesses who have been the victim of competitors setting up false rating websites in order to publish defamatory content about our business clients. Beyond slander and libel law, our Chicago business, consumer, and class-action 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 cost effectively as possible, helping clients protect their rights and reputations and allow business clients to get back to business as usual. We serve clients in the Chicagoland area and throughout Illinois. You can