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09/27/89 Charles Skopp Et Al., v. First Federal Savings of

September 27, 1989





545 N.E.2d 356, 189 Ill. App. 3d 440, 136 Ill. Dec. 832 1989.IL.1519

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Myron T. Gomberg, Judge, presiding.


JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the court. RIZZI and CERDA, JJ., concur.


Plaintiffs, Charles Skopp and James Matasso, appeal from orders of the circuit court granting defendants' motion for summary judgment on two counts of the complaint and denying plaintiffs leave to amend the complaint by adding a sixth count.

In 1982, Charles Skopp was vice-president and chief loan officer at Glenview Guaranty Savings and Loan (Glenview). James Matasso was vice-president and chief financial officer at Glenview. In November of that year, Glenview merged with the First Federal Savings and Loan of Wilmette (First Federal). Two months later, in January 1983, plaintiffs' employment was terminated.

In October 1983, plaintiffs filed this action against First Federal, First Federal's president, John Gravee, and First Federal's vice-president, Jerome Maher. In count III of their four-count complaint, plaintiffs alleged that Maher slandered them by stating to Howard Russell and Joseph Jannotta of Jannotta, Bray & Associates, a placement firm hired by First Federal to assist plaintiffs in obtaining other employment, that plaintiffs had been terminated "for cause." Plaintiffs contended that the words "for cause" had a particular meaning in the savings and loan industry and that Russell and Jannotta understood the words to mean that plaintiffs had engaged in positive misconduct.

Count IV accused Gravee of slander in connection with a statement, made during a meeting between First Federal personnel and others. Plaintiffs alleged that during the meeting, Gravee falsely stated that a post-merger investigation had revealed "serious charges of criminal conduct in which Skopp was involved."

Defendants filed motions for summary judgment on counts III and IV of plaintiffs' complaint. In support of their motion for summary judgment on count III, defendants filed affidavits by Jannotta and Russell in which they stated that they did not understand the statement that plaintiffs were terminated "for cause" to mean that plaintiffs had engaged in positive misconduct or corrupt activity and that they had no specific conception of what terminated "for cause" meant, other than a general understanding that plaintiffs' performance was unsatisfactory to First Federal. In response, Matasso filed an affidavit in which he stated that when he asked Russell what "for cause" meant, Russell asked him, "Did you do something illegal? Did you violate their policies? Were you involved in some for [ sic ] of chicanery?" In granting defendants' motion for summary judgment on count I, the trial court held that Maher's statement was not actionable because Russell and Jannotta did not understand the statement to be defamatory.

The court also granted summary judgment on count IV after defendants produced evidence that the purpose of the meeting at which Gravee allegedly made the statement about Skopp was to discuss a lawsuit filed against Glenview and after it was revealed that the only other persons present at the meeting were Richard Wilde, then president of Glenview; Dominic Cannon, a member of First Federal's board of directors; two attorneys from Sonnenschein Carlin Nath & Rosenthal, the law firm representing First Federal in the litigation; and Jerome Maher. The court found that the statements were made in connection with pending litigation and, therefore, were absolutely privileged.

Subsequently, plaintiffs filed a motion seeking leave to amend their complaint by adding a count alleging that defendants were guilty of tortious interference with plaintiffs' employment contracts with Glenview. The trial court denied the motion on the ground that plaintiffs had failed to allege sufficient facts to state a cause of action for tortious interference.

Plaintiffs appeal the trial court's orders granting defendants' motion for summary judgment on counts III and IV and denying plaintiffs' motion for leave to amend their complaint., Plaintiffs contend that the trial court erred in finding that the statement that the plaintiffs were terminated "for cause" was not actionable. We disagree.

A statement is defamatory per se if it is so obviously and naturally harmful to the person to whom it refers that a showing of special damages is unnecessary. (Owen v. Carr (1986), 113 Ill. 2d 273, 497 N.E.2d 1145.) Language which falsely imputes the commission of a criminal offense, infection with a loathsome disease, unfitness or want of integrity in performing duties of employment, or which prejudices a person in his or her profession is considered defamatory per se. In determining whether language defames a plaintiff, Illinois courts apply a rule of innocent construction. (Chapski v. Copley Press (1982), 92 Ill. 2d 344, 443 N.E.2d 195.) Under this rule, 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, it cannot be actionable per se. (Chapski, 92 Ill. 2d at 352; Costello v. Capital Cities Media, Inc. (1982), 111 Ill. App. 3d 1009, 445 N.E.2d 13.) The preliminary determination of whether the words may be ...

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