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Korbar v. Hite

OPINION FILED OCTOBER 27, 1976.

WILLIAM C. KORBAR, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

THOMAS HITE ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. MEL R. JIGANTI, Judge, presiding.

MR. PRESIDING JUSTICE JOHNSON DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiff, William C. Korbar, brought this action to recover damages from Thomas Hite, "Aluminum Workers News," and Local Union 3911 of the United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO, for alleged defamatory statements contained in an article in the "Aluminum Workers News." The trial judge granted defendants' motion to dismiss, and plaintiff has appealed.

The amended complaint in this cause of action alleged that plaintiff had been elected president of the Reynolds-McCook Employees Credit Union in Brookfield, Illinois. On September 13, 1974, defendant Thomas Hite, president of Local 3911 of the United Steelworkers of America, wrote two letters to plaintiff; the first requested a meeting to discuss matters of alleged differences between certain members of Local 3911 who belonged to the credit union, and the second requested that plaintiff cease and desist from the practice of denying members of the credit union the right to withdraw their proxies. Plaintiff responded by letter dated October 2, 1974, that no member had ever been refused his permanent proxy upon request; that he did not need help from any member of the local unions; and that he felt it was his prerogative to disregard the invitation to meet with Hite.

In January 1975, an article titled "Is Your Credit Union Above Board?" by Thomas Hite, appeared in the "Aluminum Workers News." The article, in its entirety, read as follows:

"The question, is your credit union serving you or is it headed by a president that is insensitive to your needs or desires? I think that these are some of the questions that you should be interested in getting an answer to before you think about putting the same Board of Directors back in at the next Annual Meeting. From what has been told to me, your credit union seems to be run by a president and a majority of the Board of Directors that think that they own it and anytime you seek service from them, they will be doing you a favor.

After receiving a mandate from you to discuss some of your grievances with Mr. Kobar [sic] in an effort to resolve them, I got in touch with Mr. Kobar and requested a meeting with him. In essence Mr. Kobar said that he could care less about the steelworkers problems and that he would do as he pleases. Perhaps, if Mr. Kobar had tried, I am sure that many of the grievances or misunderstandings could have been resolved or explained and all would have been satisfied. I am well aware that the Board of Directors makes policy governing the operation of the credit union, but common decency dictates that every man or woman be afforded proper dignity and respect due any human being.

I do think that the Spanish Speaking members should be treated with dignity. I do think the manager should not stand in the back of the office and transact business with a member where everyone can hear.

I do think that if you cannot help a member, that he or she should be called into an office and told why and that member should be counciled [sic] as to what would be the best alternative to the problem.

I do think that the credit union should give back your proxy if you want it and allow you the chance to exercise your democratic right to vote for the people of your choice.

I do hope that as a part of plant management, that Mr. Kobar does not reflect the sentiment of the company. I have never wanted to become anything in the credit union but a member and I have never experienced any of the indignities that I've been told other members experienced, but when one member of the steelworkers is treated unfairly, then it may as well be me.

I say to all members of the local union and the credit union, demand your right to vote and use it as you see fit to."

The amended complaint alleged that this article misrepresented the contents of plaintiff's October 2 letter by language that imputed inability to perform or want of integrity in the discharge of duties of the president of the credit union. It further alleged that subsequent to the publication of the article, the Attorney General's Office of the State of Illinois and the Department of Financial Institutions determined that the material contained in the article was without substance and totally false in that plaintiff had conducted himself properly in the matter of the proxies and in the business affairs of the credit union. As a result of this publication, plaintiff contends that he was subjected to ridicule and harassment with the ultimate loss of his position as president of the credit union; that the credit union lost approximately $350,000 in withdrawals; and that he did not receive his usual merit salary increase as an employee of the Reynolds Metal Company. Malice was alleged to be the gist of the action.

Four issues are raised on appeal: (1) whether the language of the union newspaper article is libel per se; (2) whether plaintiff is a public official and therefore precluded from recovering without proof that defendant acted with actual malice or reckless disregard of the truth; (3) whether the article is libel per quod; and (4) whether the libel contains sufficient language to establish malice as the gist of the action.

• 1 Words may be actionable per se, as plaintiff contends, if they directly tend to prejudice or injure any person in his profession, trade or business and are used in relation to his occupation. (Valentine v. North American Co. for Life & Health Insurance (1973), 16 Ill. App.3d 277, 280, 305 N.E.2d 746, aff'd, 60 Ill.2d 168, 328 N.E.2d 265.) However, the threshold question in this case is whether the article was defamatory. There is no general rule defining what words are defamatory and, therefore, each case depends upon its own facts. (Wade v. Sterling Gazette Co. (1965), 56 Ill. App.2d 101, 106, 205 N.E.2d 44.) Whether a writing is libelous is a question of law to be determined by the court, and in making that determination, courts apply the "innocent construction" rule. (Von Solbrig Memorial Hospital v. Licata (1973), 15 Ill. App.3d 1025, 1031, 305 N.E.2d 252.) The innocent construction rule, as enunciated by our supreme court in John v. Tribune Co. (1962), 24 Ill.2d 437, 442, 181 N.E.2d 105, "* * ...


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