Statements About Business Owner Did Not Constitute Slander or Libel, According to Illinois Appellate Court – Coghlin v. Beck

A business owner who had served as president of a trade association filed a lawsuit alleging slander per se and libel per se for statements made to members of that association and others. She named a former client and her successor as association president, among others, as defendants. After the court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, an Illinois appellate court affirmed the dismissal. Coghlan, et al v. Beck, et al, 984 N.E.2d 132 (Ill. App. 2013).

The plaintiff, Angelika Coghlan, was the managing partner of an information technology (IT) company, Catwalk Consulting, Inc. She served as the president of the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO-Chicago) from July 2008 until June 2010. In January 2010, Rebecca Busch, CEO of Medical Business Associates, Inc. (MBA), submitted a request for IT services to NAWBO-Chicago’s member listserv. Coghlan claimed that she contacted Busch directly about the request, then posted the request to the listserv, where all members could see it. Coghlan and Bush entered into an agreement for services, and Catwalk provided IT services to MBA for over a year, billing it more than $150,000. MBA notified Catwalk that it was terminating their contract in March 2011.

Valerie Beck succeeded Coghlan as NAWBO-Chicago president in July 2010, and Coghlan stayed on as a member of the board of directors. Beck prepared a written statement for the board’s April 2011 meeting making various claims against Coghlan. The statement called Coghlan a “corrupt Director,” accusing her of intercepting MBA’s listserv posting “for her own benefit,” and alleging other wrongdoing. Id. at 139. That month, Busch sent a letter to IBM’s Global Financing Division, which had financed the Catwalk contract, alleging that Catwalk never delivered. Id. at 140.

Coghlan’s lawsuit alleged libel per se and slander per se against Beck for the statement to the NAWBO-Chicago board, libel per se against Busch for the letter to IBM, and conspiracy to commit libel per se against both individuals. The court dismissed the libel per se and slander per se claims, finding that the statements were either “substantially true,” “nonactionable opinion,” or subject to a “qualified privilege.” Id. at 141.

A key element of a defamation claim, which includes libel and slander, is that the statement must be a false statement purporting to be fact. “Substantial truth” and “opinion” are defenses to a libel or slander claim. Slander or libel per se are statements that are obviously false and damaging on their face, but the law does not allow recovery for such a statement if a reasonable person could interpret it in a non-defamatory way. This is the “innocent construction” defense. Id. at 146. Finally, some statements are subject to an absolute or qualified privilege against defamation claims. A qualified privilege, the appellate court noted, applies to statements made by officers or employees of a corporation investigating possible wrongdoing by a corporate employee. Id. at 147. While the court found that the lower court erred in finding some of Beck’s statements “substantially true,” it found that those statements still either had an innocent construction or were subject to a qualified privilege that the plaintiff did not overcome in her pleadings.

Lubin Austermuehle’s slander and libel attorneys have decades of experience representing businesses and consumers in defamation lawsuits, both as plaintiffs and defendants. We fight for the rights of plaintiffs who have experienced losses because of slander or libel, and we defend clients against claims for defamation. Our practice covers the greater Chicago area, as well as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Contact us today online, at (630) 333-0333, or at 630-333-0333 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.

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