Illinois Supreme Court to Decide Limits of Discovery Rule in Defamation Claims in the Age of the Internet

The longstanding one-year statute of limitations for defamation actions in Illinois could be on its way out. The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on the question of whether the deadline for filing libel lawsuits needs to be revisited to account for the explosion of online content in the twenty-first century. Defamation and libel attorneys throughout Illinois will be eagerly following this case as it presents potentially the largest change to defamation law in recent memory.

On January 14, the Illinois Supreme Court heard arguments in a defamation case brought by Paul J. Ciolino, a private investigator at the center of the Alstory Simon story, one of Chicago’s most prominent alleged wrongful murder conviction cases. The case is just the most recent installment of a long-running saga that has gripped the attention of Chicagoans for decades. The First District Court of Appeals described the case as follows in its opinion:

This case stems from one of the most famous murder cases in the recent history of our state. The background of the case is gripping. It is no real surprise then that the events surrounding the case have spurred a movie, a book, and other media attention.

In 1982, Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green were murdered in Washington Park in Chicago. Anthony Porter was convicted for the murders and sentenced to the death penalty. Members of Northwestern University’s Innocence Project took an interest in the case and began reviewing evidence gathered by Porter’s defense attorney during the case. They determined that another man, Simon, was in the area of the murders close to the time that they were committed. Believing that Simon committed the murders, they started collecting evidence in an attempt to build their case that Simon, not Porter, was the murder.

Enter our plaintiff, Ciolino, into the picture. Ciolino was employed as a private investigator and did work for the Innocence Project. While working on the Porter’s case, Ciolino and another investigator traveled to Simon’s house and allegedly coerced him into giving a videotaped confession, which ultimately led to Porter’s conviction being vacated and Simon being convicted for the Washington Park murders. Porter’s exoneration was instrumental in Illinois’ ban on the death penalty. In 2013, Simon’s conviction was overturned following several yearlong investigations into Simon’s innocence.

Shortly after Simon’s conviction was overturned, author William Crawford published a book entitled Justice Perverted: How the Innocence Project of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism Sent an Innocent Man to Prison. Filmmakers also premiered a documentary film about Simon’s story titled “A Murder in the Park.” The film portrayed Ciolino’s actions in the Simon case in a negative light. Specifically, Ciolino’s lawsuit alleges that Terry Ekl, an attorney who represented Simon in his action to overturn his murder conviction, made several defamatory statements about Ciolino in the documentary including that “Ciolino got the confession and then handed him over to his office mate and his own personal attorney to represent him and tell him that he had to plead guilty.”

In response to statements in the documentary and Justice Perverted, Ciolino filed a $25 million defamation lawsuit against Ekl and others. Ekl and the other defendants sought dismissal of the claims arguing that Ciolino’s claims were time-barred because he waited years too long to file the defamation lawsuit. The Circuit Court Judge who decided the motion agreed with the defendants and dismissed the lawsuit.

On appeal, Ciolino argued that his claims were not time-barred, despite the one-year statute of limitations, because the discovery rule should apply to the case. The discovery rule provides that the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the plaintiff discovers the allegedly defamatory statements. The discovery rule only applies in defamation law if the statements were in some way hidden, or otherwise “inherently unknowable.” Ciolino argued that the discovery rule should apply to his claims. The First District agreed with Ciolino and ruled that the discovery rule applied.

Ekl has appealed the First District court’s decision, asking the Illinois Supreme Court to rule that Illinois law establishes a “bright-line rule” that limits defamation cases to a one-year statute of limitations. At oral arguments, Ekl’s attorney argued that allowing plaintiffs to use the discovery rule to file defamation lawsuits years after the statement was published by claiming that they are only now learning of the defamation, would allow “incredibly stale claims” to be turned into potentially ruinous lawsuits, “with no recourse for the defense.” Letting the First District’s opinion stand, Ekl’s attorney argued, would flip the time limit rules on their head, essentially turning a “very limited exception” to the statute of limitations into the rule itself.

Justice Mary Jane Theis questioned whether Ekl’s position means that people living in the twenty-first century must constantly monitor the entirety of the internet if they hope to maintain their right to sue for defamation. “Do we have an obligation to search, to protect our reputations?” Theis asked. Justices also questioned Ciolino’s attorney on the limits of Ciolino’s position. Justice Robert Carter questioned Ciolino’s attorney at oral arguments “If they saw the film 10 years later, is that when the statute of limitations starts?”

Lubin Austermuehle’s Cook County defamation and slander lawyers near Evanston and Schaumburg 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, class-action, and consumer 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 locally at 630-333-0333.

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