sustaining damages of $100,000. This allegation does not
constitute a sufficient statement of special damages for
purposes of Rule 9(g).
While there is no hard and fast formula for determining
whether an item of special damages has been stated with
sufficient specificity, it is clear that the complainant must
do more than allege that the injury suffered was the natural
result of the alleged libel. Spelson v. CBS, Inc., 581 F. Supp. 1195,
1201 (N.D.Ill. 1984). At the very least, an allegation of
special damage must be "explicit." Id. Thus in Paul v. Premier
Elec. Const. Co., 581 F. Supp. 721 (N.D.Ill. 1984), the
plaintiff's special damage allegation was insufficient where it
claimed injury to the plaintiff's good name, reputation and
business in the amount of $12,500,000. The complaint alleged no
basis for the figure, no connection between the defamatory
statement and the damage, and did not specify the nature of the
damage. Id. at 274. The instant damage allegation suffers from
the same deficiency.
Not only is the plaintiffs' pleading of specific damages
insufficient, but plaintiffs raise no genuine issue as to the
existence of special damages. In their submissions to the Court
the defendants asserted that the plaintiff King suffered no
special damages, and supported their assertion with a copy of
King's deposition testimony. Plaintiffs rested entirely on
their pleadings with respect to the special damage issue. Since
it finds that the plaintiffs failed to establish a genuine
issue of fact regarding the absence of special damages, the
Court grants defendants' motion for summary judgment on the
claim of libel per quod.
B. Libel Per Se
Words are libelous per se if they are "so obviously and
naturally hurtful to the person aggrieved that proof of their
injurious character can be, and is, dispensed with." Reed v.
Albanese, 78 Ill. App.2d 53, 58, 223 N.E.2d 419, 422 (1st Dist.
1966). In Illinois, there are four categories of words which
may be actionable as libel per se. These categories consist of
words which impute: (1) the commission of a criminal offense;
(2) infection with a communicable disease; (3) unfitness or
want of integrity in the performance of the duties of an office
or employment; and (4) the lack of ability to perform in his or
her business, trade or profession. Fried v. Jacobson, 107 Ill. App.3d 780,
63 Ill.Dec. 564, 438 N.E.2d 495 (1st Dist. 1982).
The current Illinois standard employed in examining
statements alleged to be defamatory is set forth in Chapski v.
Copley, 92 Ill.2d 344, 65 Ill.Dec. 884, 442 N.E.2d 195 (1982):
We therefore hold that a written or oral statement
is to be considered in context, with the words and
the implications therefrom given their natural and
obvious meaning; if, as so construed, the statement
may reasonably be innocently interpreted or
reasonably be interpreted as referring to someone
other than the plaintiff it cannot be actionable
per se. This preliminary determination is properly
a question of law to be resolved by the court in
the first instance; whether the publication was in
fact understood to be defamatory or to refer to the
plaintiff is a question for the jury should the
initial determination be resolved in favor of the
plaintiff. Id. at 199. [Emphasis supplied.]
This current rule is known as the "reasonable innocent
construction rule." This rule requires "a statement be analyzed
with the words and implications given their natural and obvious
meaning in as much of a current day context as possible."
Action Repair, at 145. In the context of a summary judgment
motion, the reasonable innocent construction rule requires that
the court determine as a matter of law, whether an alleged
defamatory statement can reasonably be interpreted as falling
outside of one of the four aforementioned categories of libel
per se. Only if the statement is not reasonably capable of such
innocent construction will an issue of fact remain for the
fact-finder, and thereby survive summary judgment.
In the instant case the plaintiffs contend that the notice to
the credit union members imputes King's commission of a
criminal offense and her want of integrity in the performance
of the duties of an office or employment. These contentions
must be measured under the "reasonable innocent construction
1. Commission of a Criminal Offense
The context in which the allegedly defamatory statement
appeared was a notice dated May 1, 1984, to credit union
members of an upcoming special meeting of the membership. The
notice was posted on various bulletin boards and delivered to
credit union members. The May 1 notice was the second notice of
a special meeting to consider King's suspension. The first
notice, dated April 23, 1984, stated simply that a special
meeting would be held regarding the suspension of a supervisory
committee member, but neither identified King nor described the
circumstances which gave rise to the meeting. The more explicit
May 1 notice was apparently necessary to comply with credit
union by-laws which require that a special meeting notice state
with particularity the purpose for which it is held.
Defendants contend that, because the allegedly libelous
statement was made in a meeting notice, it could reasonably be
interpreted to merely describe the issue which the Board of
Directors addressed and which the meeting would address, and
not to actually accuse King of a crime. However, the notice
does more than merely announce the purpose of the special
meeting. The natural and obvious meaning of the notice, and its
most reasonable interpretation, is that the Board of Directors
suspended King because they determined that King in fact
"willingly and knowingly did accept a check for illegal funds."
The notice further asks credit union members to respond to the
Board's determination by attending a special meeting and voting
on King's permanent suspension. The message amounts to an
accusation by the Board of Directors that King committed some
wrong. The remaining question is whether the imputed act falls
within the definition of crime which would entitle plaintiff to
recovery under libel per se.
To be actionable as libel per se, for imputing a criminal
offense, the defection charged must be an indictable one,
involving moral turpitude and punishable by death or by
imprisonment otherwise than in lieu of fine. Mitchell v. Peoria
Journal-Star, Inc., 76 Ill. App.2d 154, 160, 221 N.E.2d 516,
520 (3d Dist. 1966). The charge need not reflect the
specificity of an indictment, but must directly or indirectly
impute the commission of a crime which is so serious that
damage to the accused must be presumed from the words alone.
See American Pet Motels, 106 Ill. App.3d at 627, 62 Ill.Dec. at
328, 435 N.E.2d at 1300. Again, the reasonable innocent
construction rule governs the interpretation of the statement.
Although the notice in this case clearly suggests that King
committed some wrong, the notice is unclear regarding the
gravity of the wrong. Knowingly accepting a check for illegal
funds could suggest a crime of theft or receipt of stolen
property, or it could amount to no crime at all. Moreover, the
context of the statement is not helpful in measuring the
seriousness of the alleged crime. The fact that the Board of
Directors suspended King and the suggestion in the notice that
the bond ability and future of the credit union were threatened
add seriousness to King's act. However, the mention that the
check for the illegal funds was issued by a director
unauthorized to issue checks shifts some guilt to the director
and tempers King's wrong. Considering the context of statement,
and its natural and obvious meaning, the Court finds that a
reasonable person could interpret the statement as imputing
conduct falling short of a serious crime. The words are simply
not so obviously and naturally hurtful that damage to King must
be presumed. Accordingly, the statement is not actionable
per se as imputing the commission of a crime.
2. Want of Integrity
Plaintiff alleges that the notice imputed her want of
integrity and unfitness in the office of Supervisory Committee
Member. As previously discussed, the notice reasonably and
naturally conveys that the Board of Directors found plaintiff
to have accepted a check for illegal funds. The message implies
that plaintiff lacks integrity as a supervisory committee
member, and it cannot reasonably be innocently interpreted
otherwise. The remaining question is whether Supervisory
Committee membership is an "office" as contemplated by the
Illinois libel law.
Illinois courts have found statements libelous per se which
have imputed a person's lack of integrity in the office of
judge (Cooper v. Illinois Publishing & Printing Co., 218 Ill. App. 95
(1st Dist. 1920), mayor (Lundstrom v. Winnebago
Newspapers, Inc., 58 Ill. App.2d 33, 206 N.E.2d 525 (2d Dist.
1965)), canvassing board member (Hotz v. Alton Telegraph
Printing Co., 324 Ill. App. 1, 57 N.E.2d 137 (4th Dist. 1944)),
state's attorney (McDonald v. Chicago Daily News Pub. Co.,
252 Ill. App.? 61 (1st Dist. 1929)), city board chairman (Costello
v. Capitol Cities Media Inc., 111 Ill. App.3d 1009, 67 Ill.Dec.
721, 445 N.E.2d 13 (5th Dist. 1982)), and alderman (Catalano v.
Pechous, 83 Ill.2d 146, 50 Ill.Dec. 242, 419 N.E.2d 350
(1980)). Statements tending to injure persons in their trade or
business are also clearly actionable per se. See, e.g.,
Crinkley v. Dow Jones & Co., Inc., 119 Ill. App.3d 147, 74
Ill.Dec. 636, 456 N.E.2d 138 (1st Dist. 1983). But persons
defamed in a nonpublic office, which is not an office of
employment, seem to have no cause of action for libel per se.
This Court reached the same conclusion in another recent case
where it stated, "this category of libel per se speech is
limited to those cases where the individual allegedly defamed
is the holder of a public office." Spelson v. CBS, Inc.,
581 F. Supp. 1195, 1205 (N.D.Ill. 1984). This conclusion is not only
consistent with Illinois precedent, but is consistent with the
rationale of libel per se. Statements are libelous per se only
if they are so obviously injurious to a person that damages may
be presumed. The amount of injury suffered by one who is
defamed in public office or in a profession or livelihood is
naturally great, and therefore the existence of injury is
presumed. In contrast, the harm accruing to a person who is
defamed in a private endeavor, outside of the person's trade or
business, is not obvious. The latter situation requires proof
In the instant case, plaintiff King alleges injury to her
office of Supervisory Committee Member. The credit union is a
private, voluntary organization comprised of local federal
employees. The credit union membership elects a Board of
Directors, which in turn appoints several executive officers
and committees, including the Supervisory Committee, to assist
in operating the credit union. Within the committees are
committee officers and members. Plaintiff King's position as a
member of the Supervisory Committee was uncompensated, consumed
only a few hours per month, and was entirely outside of her
full-time employment with the Social Security Administration.
Considering the private nature of King's office, the Court
finds that any defamation of plaintiff in that office is not so
obviously harmful that it is actionable per se.
For the reasons stated above, defendants' motion for partial
summary judgment is granted. Accordingly, Count III of
plaintiffs' complaint is dismissed.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
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