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Cartwright v. Garrison





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County; the Hon. Jack Hoogasian, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff, Gene J. Cartwright, appeals from the trial court's dismissal of his complaint, which alleged he had been defamed by defendant, Charles Garrison. Plaintiff raises the following issues on appeal: (1) whether the statement made by defendant was incapable of an innocent construction; (2) whether the innocent-construction rule should be replaced with a reasonable-construction rule.

Plaintiff's complaint alleged that plaintiff was the superintendent of the Zion-Benton High School, District No. 126, Lake County, Illinois, and that defendant was a member of that district's school board. Plaintiff alleged he was "a person of good name and reputation and was and is held in high esteem within his profession and in the community." He further alleged that defendant made the following defamatory statement to a reporter for the News-Sun newspaper which appeared in an article headlined "Garrison won't quit" beginning on the front page of the newspaper's October 7, 1981, edition:

"`Whatever legal ramifications result from that investigation — which could range from the superintendent losing his certification to criminal penalties — is up to the state's attorney.

I think that the public will demand changes once all the information is brought out by the state's attorney.'"

Plaintiff alleged that defendant made the statement "knowing that there was no basis for it or, at least, having a reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity." He alleged that the statement "inevitably leads those who read it to conclude that, at the least, Plaintiff is a criminal" and that he had been injured by the statement both personally and professionally. He further alleged that defendant made the statement with a malicious intent to impute criminal behavior to the plaintiff, to injure plaintiff in his professional capacity, and to jeopardize plaintiff's new position as superintendent of another school district.

The statement in issue appeared near the end of the article. The story began by reporting a closed meeting of the Zion-Benton High School Board. Defendant was quoted as saying that he had been asked to resign from the school board during this meeting. The article reported that defendant believed the board's action was in response to his discussing, with the State's Attorney, alleged Open Meetings Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 102, par. 41 et seq.) violations by the board and "misdeeds by the administration."

The article stated that defendant declined to comment on any specific allegations and that he indicated there was sufficient proof to justify his allegations to the State's Attorney. The story identified plaintiff as superintendent of the school district.

The article stated that at the meeting defendant was presented with a letter requesting his resignation and that defendant said the letter dealt with his taking information to the State's Attorney. Defendant was quoted as saying some board members had threatened to sue him and that he viewed it "all as a threat to try to intimidate me so I will not pursue the allegations that have been made to the state's attorney." The allegedly defamatory statement appeared immediately after this quotation.

The article closed by noting that plaintiff had resigned as superintendent the previous month to take a superintendent's position elsewhere.

The record on appeal does not contain an answer by defendant. Defendant did file a motion for summary judgment (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 57) supported by his affidavit together with several documents. He later filed plaintiff's discovery deposition. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the motion for summary judgment supported by excerpts from defendant's deposition. The trial court treated defendant's motion for summary judgment as a motion to dismiss and granted a dismissal. The memorandum order does not clearly state the trial court's actual basis for the dismissal, although the innocent-construction rule was referred to in the memorandum.

• 1, 2 Even though the trial court does not clearly indicate the reasons for its dismissal of plaintiff's complaint, a reviewing court may affirm that dismissal where proper grounds for dismissal exist. (Goldberg v. Goldberg (1981), 103 Ill. App.3d 584, 587, 431 N.E.2d 1060; White Fence Farm, Inc. v. Land & Lakes Co. (1981), 99 Ill. App.3d 234, 239, 424 N.E.2d 1370.) A motion to dismiss is properly treated under section 48(1)(i) of the Civil Practice Act when the ground for dismissal is that the claim is barred "by other affirmative matter avoiding the legal effect of or defeating the claim or demand." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 48(1)(i).) In a defamation action, the question whether the allegedly defamatory language is rendered nondefamatory by the innocent-construction rule is properly considered under section 48(1)(i). Nagib v. News-Sun (1978), 64 Ill. App.3d 752, 757, 381 N.E.2d 1014; Kilbane v. Sabonjian (1976), 38 Ill. App.3d 172, 175, 347 N.E.2d 757; see also John v. Tribune Co. (1962), 24 Ill.2d 437, 181 N.E.2d 105; Davis v. Keystone Printing Service, Inc. (1982), 111 Ill. App.3d 427, 432-33, 444 N.E.2d 253.

Whether the innocent-construction rule requires dismissal is initially a question of law to be resolved by the trial court and depends on examination of the allegedly defamatory statement and of the context in which it appears. (Chapski v. Copley Press (1982), 92 Ill.2d 344, 352, 442 N.E.2d 195.) Therefore, the affidavit and depositions presented here will not be considered.

• 3 Plaintiff alleges that defendant's statement was defamatory in that it falsely accused him of committing a crime and harmed him in his profession. An allegation that a statement falsely accuses a person of committing a crime is sufficient to support a defamation action against the person making the statement. (Zeinfeld v. Hayes Freight Lines, Inc. (1968), 41 Ill.2d 345, 348, 243 N.E.2d 217; Fogus v. Capital Cities Media, Inc. (1982), 111 Ill. App.3d 1060, 1062; Makis v. Area Publications Corp. (1979), 77 Ill. App.3d ...

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