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Starnes v. International Harvester Co.

OPINION FILED MARCH 17, 1986.

WILLIAM B. STARNES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT (ROBERT D. OWEN, DEFENDANT). — WILLIAM B. STARNES, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

INTERNATIONAL HARVESTER COMPANY, DEFENDANT (ROBERT D. OWEN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT).



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Sangamon County; the Hon. Richard E. Mann, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE GREEN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied April 15, 1986.

On June 18, 1982, plaintiff, William B. Starnes, a circuit judge of this State, filed a two-count complaint sounding in defamation, in the circuit court of Madison County against defendants, International Harvester Company and Robert D. Owen. On January 11, 1984, on defendants' motion, the venue was transferred to Sangamon County. That complaint was subsequently dismissed, and an amended two-count complaint was filed on August 26, 1984. On August 2, 1985, the circuit court of Sangamon County denied defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint. On September 18, 1985, the court entered a finding that its order refusing to dismiss the complaint involved "a question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of [the] litigation * * *." (87 Ill.2d R. 308(a).) On October 18, 1985, we granted separate motions of defendants for leave to appeal and consolidated the cases. We reverse the order of the circuit court refusing to dismiss count I and dismiss the appeal as to the ruling on count II.

The complaint alleged that (1) Owen was an attorney for International Harvester Company in a case in the circuit court of Madison County at which Judge Starnes presided; (2) sometime between March 13, 1980, and May 8, 1981, while acting as an agent of International Harvester Company, Owen presented to the Judicial Inquiry Board of the State of Illinois (JIB) letters and other memoranda charging Judge Starnes with judicial misconduct during the course of the foregoing case; (3) the documents presented to the JIB charged the judge with conduct criminal in nature; (4) the charges were malicious because Owen either knew they were false or made them with reckless disregard of their truth; and (5) Judge Starnes was damaged thereby. Count II alleged that Owen had uttered to others the same words contained in the documents sent to the JIB.

The trial court's order of September 18, 1985, stated the "question of law involved" (87 Ill.2d R. 308) to be:

"[W]hether communications with the Judicial Inquiry Board are absolutely privileged against claims of defamation so to preclude actions for libel or slander based thereon."

It is readily apparent that the stated question of law is determinative only as to count I. The thrust of count II is that the defamatory matter contained in the documents submitted to the JIB was uttered to other persons. Accordingly, our grant of leave to appeal as to that count was improvident and we dismiss the appeal as to that count.

As a matter of public policy, certain types of defamatory statements are deemed privileged so that the person making the statement will not be deterred from speaking by the threat of civil liability. When absolute privilege is granted, no cause of action for defamation lies against the person making the statement even if it is made with malice. (Restatement (Second) of Torts, ch. 25, topic 2, title B, Introductory Note, at 242-44 (1977).) When only qualified privilege is granted, the person making the statement is immune from liability unless some element such as malice is present.

The JIB was established by article VI, section 15, of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 for the purpose of receiving or initiating complaints about and conducting investigations concerning State judges. Upon finding a reasonable basis to do so, the JIB is directed to file complaints with the Courts Commission, which is empowered to hear the charges and, if the charges are proved, to impose sanctions on the judges. The parties agree that the communications to the JIB referred to in count I of the complaint were at least conditionally privileged because they were alleged to be in criticism of a judge. Solely for the reason that a judge is a public official, the statements would have privilege absent a showing of malice. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), 376 U.S. 254, 11 L.Ed.2d 686, 84 S.Ct. 710.

• 1 However, count I alleged malice, and the question presented is whether the fact that the statements were made to the JIB makes them absolutely privileged. Plaintiff contends that the conditional privilege given complainants such as Owen is sufficient to permit them to speak without substantial fear and that if the statements are actually made with malice, the person making the statement should be subject to liability. Defendants contend that any exposure to liability is likely to discourage persons such as Owen from complaining. The issue is one requiring us to strike a balance. One consideration is the importance of encouraging people such as Owen to complaint and the deterrence from complaining that results from any exposure to liability for making the complaint. The other consideration is the harm that may result to persons like Starnes by unsubstantiated complaints being made. Although no case is directly in point, we conclude that stated Illinois public policy is to give greater weight to the first consideration and grant absolute privilege to complaints made to the JIB.

In Illinois, complaints made to certain types of governmental entities have been held to be absolutely privileged from giving rise to actions for defamation. In Ritchey v. Maksin (1978), 71 Ill.2d 470, 376 N.E.2d 991, statements made in a criminal complaint verified by the defendant were held to have such a privilege. Similarly, in Vogel v. Gruaz (1884), 110 U.S. 311, 28 L.Ed. 158, a complaint made by a private citizen to a prosecutor that another had stolen money from him was held to be absolutely privileged. The court noted that a private citizen had a duty to report to the appropriate public official facts tending to show the commission of a crime. In Harrell v. Summers (1961), 32 Ill. App.2d 358, 178 N.E.2d 133, the court followed Vogel and deemed the verification of a petition for mental commitment prepared by the State's Attorney to be an absolutely privileged statement.

Complaints made to governmental bodies which are not courts have also been held to have absolute privilege. Most recently, in Thomas v. Petrulis (1984), 125 Ill. App.3d 415, 465 N.E.2d 1059, a complaint made to the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was held to be unqualifiedly immune from charges of defamation. The court recognized that not all complaints to administrative agencies had that immunity but if the agency had judicial powers, the same consideration requiring immunity for complaints to courts were operative. Agencies having those powers were described as quasi-judicial bodies.

The Thomas court stated:

"Six powers have been isolated as differentiating a quasi-judicial body from that performing merely ...


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