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Von Solbrig Memorial Hospital v. Licata

NOVEMBER 20, 1973.




APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. NICHOLAS J. BUA, Judge, presiding.


This is an appeal from the decisions of the circuit court of Cook County to quash summonses against a labor organization and to dismiss plaintiffs' complaint against the two named individual defendants. The complaint in the court below sought damages for alleged libels committed in the course of a labor dispute between plaintiffs and defendants. For purposes of clarity, hereinafter the plaintiffs will be referred to as follows: the von Solbrig Memorial Hospital as "the Hospital"; Dr. Charles R. von Solbrig as "von Solbrig"; and Sylvia Uptain as "Uptain." The individual defendants, Dominic Licata and Jeanne Smith, will be referred to as "Licata" and "Smith," respectively; and the remaining defendants will be referred to collectively as "the Union." Licata and Smith, at the time of the alleged libels, were, respectively, a director and a representative of the Union.

The labor dispute in question arose in April of 1970 when the Union was engaged in organizational activities at the Hospital. At that time, the Union, through a leaflet distributed to the Hospital's employees, invited the employees to attend an organizational meeting which was held in late May of that year. In addition, the leaflet, dated April 24, 1970, accused Uptain of "Bossism" at the Hospital, characterized Uptain as "Boss Sylvia" and a "Queen Bee" with respect to her duties as Director of Nurses at the Hospital, and, inter alia, appealed to the employees to join the Union in order to better their working situation at the Hospital. Defendant Licata's signature appeared at the close of the April 24 leaflet.

On June 3, 1970, one Veronica Brongel, a nurses' aide at the Hospital, who had been employed there for approximately ten years and who had attended the late-May Union meeting and had furnished Union handbills to the Hospital's employees, was informed by the Hospital's payroll clerk that her (Brongel's) services were no longer required at the Hospital. The Union thereafter brought the discharge to the attention of the National Labor Relations Board, *fn1 and, moreover, undertook a leaflet campaign against the Hospital, von Solbrig, and Uptain with a view toward vindicating Brongel and having her restored to her position at the Hospital.

One leaflet, dated September 8, 1970, at the bottom of which appeared defendant Smith's name, stated, among other things, that the Hospital had "fired" Brongel; that the Union had taken this "unjust discharge" before the N.L.R.B.; that the Board had declared that the firing was unjust and that employees of the Hospital should join the Union and support Veronica Brongel's "fight."

Subsequent to the N.L.R.B. hearings into the Brongel matter, which were held on October 13, 14, and 15, 1970, the Union distributed yet another leaflet, dated October 21, 1970, which stated, in pertinent part, the following relative to the N.L.R.B. hearings: that von Solbrig had testified at the hearings that Brongel was "really a bad employee who had done her work poorly"; that von Solbrig had become "enraged and fired her" because of her union meeting attendance; that von Solbrig and another employee proceeded at the hearings "to attempt a cover up with a pack of lies about her [Brongel's] performance on the job. Apparently, even Sylvia Uptain [and another employee] couldn't be counted on to back up these lies with a straight face, because after waiting for two days to testify, they were sent home when their turns came." The leaflet's concluding three paragraphs included these statements:

"However, when the subject [of the hearings] comes up, Von Solbrig completely loses his cool, turns purple, and starts his Prussian general tirade. * * *

"Little does Von Solbrig know that the days of complete dictatorship are over. * * *

"Dr. Von Solbrig has lost a battle! However, he still has to lose the war. You, [sic] can be the one to finally bring this Prussian dictator to his knees."

On March 25, 1971, plaintiffs filed a lengthy three-count complaint against defendants, incorporating as exhibits therein the April 24, September 8, and October 21, 1970 leaflets. Count one, with reference to plaintiff Hospital, alleged, inter alia, that the defendants, knowing that the Hospital was an institution of good name, accreditation, and so forth, maliciously caused to be written, and, in bad faith, published articles and letters containing libels concerning the Hospital; that defendants, in publishing said libels, lacked good faith and that their publication was conceived "solely because of a malicious design to injure" plaintiff Hospital; and that as a direct and proximate result of the libels, the Hospital had been injured in its reputation in the community and had suffered substantial economic loss incurred herein. Count one concluded with a prayer for judgment against defendants for compensatory damages of $100,000.00, for punitive damages of $1,000,000.00, and costs. Count one alluded to a spate of examples of the alleged libelous statements made in the Union leaflets, many of which are set forth above in haec verba or in paraphrase.

Count two of the complaint, with reference to plaintiff von Solbrig, alleged, inter alia, much of what had been alleged in count one; it then went on to allege that defendants, knowing von Solbrig to be a physician and surgeon of good name, accreditation, and so forth, and with intent to injure von Solbrig's good name and his professional reputation as a physician and administrator of the Hospital, caused to be published libels in the Union's leaflets referred to above. (Again, count two set forth many instances of alleged libelous statements taken directly from the leaflets.) Count two concluded with allegations that because of said alleged libelous statements, von Solbrig had suffered ill health, emotional distress and damage to his reputation and medical practice. The prayer for judgment in this count was identical to that in count one.

Count three of the complaint, with reference to plaintiff Uptain, once again alleged much of what had been alleged in count one, and again cited several examples of alleged libelous statements concerning Uptain which were extracted verbatim from the Union leaflets. In addition, count three charged that the statements impugned Uptain's reputation as director of nurses and caused her ill health and economic loss. The count concluded with a prayer for judgment in amounts identical to those set forth in the earlier counts.

On April 28, 1971, attorneys for the Union, acting on behalf of the Union only, entered a special and limited appearance before the court below for the purpose of objecting to the court's jurisdiction over the persons of the named Union defendants and moved the court to quash the summonses issued on the grounds that the Union defendants were voluntary unincorporated associations, commonly called labor unions, and as such could not be sued in law by or in their association names.

On the same date, attorneys for defendants Licata and Smith moved the court below to strike plaintiffs' complaint and to dismiss the action on the grounds that the complaint was insufficient at law. In support of their motion, defendants gave these reasons, among others: even if true, the alleged libelous statements were undertaken solely in connection with a labor dispute, that the statements carried a "qualified privilege," and that the complaint alleged no special damages as required by law; the alleged defamatory material was not libelous per se, the complaint alleged no special damages or facts upon which ...

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