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Grabavoy v. Wilson

OCTOBER 18, 1967.




Appeal from the Circuit Court of Will County, Twelfth Judicial Circuit; the Hon. VICTOR N. CARDOSI, Judge, presiding. Affirmed.


The cause before us originated as an action by Ned Grabavoy as plaintiff-appellant as against William Wilson alleging that he maliciously libeled Grabavoy by issuing a false statement to the press that Grabavoy was indebted for tax liens in excess of $64,000 by means of displaying a document prepared by Chicago Title and Trust Co. which set forth existing unreleased liens shown of record in the Will County Recorder's Office. In another count of the same complaint, it was alleged that defendant William M. Johnson, as publisher of The Spectator newspaper maliciously libeled Grabavoy by publishing a story and accompanying editorial based on the statement as to delinquent taxes. Motions to dismiss the counts were filed on behalf of defendants and the trial court entered orders dismissing both counts of the complaint filed on behalf of both defendants. The fundamental issue raised on appeal is whether the complaint states a cause of action for libel as against either defendant.

In Count I of the complaint, plaintiff alleges that he was elected as a councilman of Joliet and was also a businessman in operation of ten retail bakery goods stores in Joliet and surrounding areas. He alleges that during the period of approximately five years from October 1960 to October 1965, certain tax liens were filed against his business operation and that during the same period most of said tax liens had been paid and released although through "inadvertence" said releases were not shown of record. The pleadings show that the "inadvertence" consisted of the neglect of plaintiff to have the releases filed as a matter of public record.

The pleadings further disclose that on December 21, 1965, defendant William Wilson, who was also a Joliet councilman, and plaintiff were at a council meeting and that following the meeting the defendant delivered to The Spectator newspaper copies of a certain report of Chicago Title and Trust Co. which set forth a record of liens filed as against plaintiff Grabavoy. The report was obtained without knowledge of plaintiff and the name of the person to whom the title company issued the report was purposely blocked out. It was alleged in the complaint that defendant Wilson knew that plaintiff's reputation in the community was excellent and that the issuance and publication of the statement and report would defame plaintiff's reputation, both in business and as a public officeholder, and would cause financial loss to plaintiff in the operation of his business. It is asserted that notwithstanding such knowledge, defendant Wilson maliciously issued the statement and report without making any effort to ascertain its accuracy or correctness. It was then alleged generally that plaintiff was damaged in his reputation in the community and as a public official and that he suffered loss of business profits and that such business was in lesser amount and its profits lower following the issuance of said information.

In the second count of the complaint, the introductory facts were realleged and defendant William M. Johnson, the publisher of the newspaper was alleged to have circulated in the Joliet area on page 1 of his newspaper, information to the effect that defendant Wilson passed out photostats to the press of a report of the Chicago Title and Trust Co. listing "some 28 tax liens against Ned Grabavoy, Southern Fried Donut or West Side Bakery, totaling $64,681.81." In the same issue of the newspaper, defendant Johnson printed the following editorial on page 4 thereof:


"Harry S. Truman, who was once more or less well known in political circles, once made the statement, `If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.'

"And the heat was on this week as City Councilmen Norman Keck and William Wilson questioned the right of Councilman Ned Grabavoy to deliberate on the dispensing of public tax money when Grabavoy was reported by Keck and Wilson as failing to pay a huge amount of his own taxes.

"While Councilman Grabavoy gave a few cries of anguish and accused his former running-mate, Keck, of being somewhat less than loyal, Grabavoy set the fire under his own chair in the last city election when he accused Ralph Smith and William Wilson of practically everything short of outright theft of the door knobs off the city hall.

"If he guessed that Wilson and Smith . . . and Keck . . . would forgive and forget, he couldn't have been more wrong. And when these men documented Grabavoy's reported failure to pay some $64,000 in state, federal and local taxes, he could be sure this matter would be made public.

"There are quite possibly mitigating circumstances. It is quite easy for a businessman to suffer reverses. Certainly Grabavoy must be in business difficulty if he has failed to pay nearly 30 separate tax liens stretching from Oct. 17, 1960 to Oct. 14, 1965.

"But under most circumstances it would seem that a businessman in such a position would seek to put all of his time into getting his business problems cleared up . . . simply by increasing his income and paying off his taxes. It is not clear how Grabavoy figured to straighten his bakery business problems while diverting days and weeks of his time to city problems on the token salary of $1,000 per year. On the contrary it would appear from the tax record produced by Councilman Wilson, that Grabavoy's tax situation is getting progressively worse with each passing month.

"Aside from the obvious political implications, it would seem that Keck and Wilson have a point in insisting that any elected official pay his taxes in full, particularly when those taxes help pay his own salary and help run the City of Joliet.

"Personally, Ned Grabavoy has always appeared to us over the years as a good father, family man and civic-minded citizen. It would seem that while that image is still reasonably intact that his best move would be to step down from the Council, clear up his business ...

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