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Stavros v. Marrese

June 28, 2001

ANTHONY STAVROS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RONALD MARRESE, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 98 L 12684 Honorable Sophia Hall, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Barth

Not Released For Publication

ANTHONY STAVROS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RONALD MARRESE, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 98 L 12684 Honorable Sophia Hall, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Barth

This appeal arises from the trial court's grant of defendant Ronald Marrese's motion to dismiss. Plaintiff, Anthony Stavros, brought the underlying action for defamation, alleging that a letter written by defendant and sent to plaintiff's employer contained a wrongful and malicious accusation that plaintiff committed extortion in connection with the issuance of a construction permit. The trial court granted defendant's motion to dismiss pursuant to section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 1998)) (the Code), finding, as a matter of law, that defendant wrote the letter under a qualified privilege and thus the statements contained therein are not actionable. We now consider: (1) whether a qualified privilege attached to the circumstances under which defendant wrote the letter and sent it to plaintiff's employer; and (2) whether, if such a privilege attached, it may have been abused by defendant.

 Factual Background

Plaintiff is employed by the Village of Wheeling (the Village) as an engineering inspector. Among other duties, he is responsible for inspecting plans for construction projects that take place in the Village. If those plans indicate that the projects will be carried out in compliance with the Village's regulations, plaintiff issues the necessary permits.

Plaintiff first met defendant on July 27, 1998. Earlier that day, defendant had gone to the village hall and applied for a construction permit, which would authorize him to remove an asphalt driveway on property he owned and to replace it with one of concrete. Our review of the record indicates that the property is a parking lot used by tenants of an adjacent apartment building. Pursuant to the permit application, plaintiff visited defendant's property and conducted an inspection of the driveway and plans. Plaintiff informed defendant that no permit would issue unless defendant removed a section of asphalt that encroached on his neighbor's property. Plaintiff instructed defendant to secure permission from his neighbor to remove the asphalt and told him that the permit would issue thereafter. Plaintiff then drove away.

Within an hour of plaintiff's departure, defendant called his neighbor, Mr. Miller, and asked for permission to remove the asphalt from his property. According to defendant, Mr. Miller was reluctant, but ultimately gave his assent. Defendant telephoned plaintiff to tell him he had spoken to Mr. Miller, who had agreed to the asphalt removal. Defendant then went to village hall and was issued a permit. The repavement work was commenced that day and completed within three or four days.

On August 26, 1998 (one month after his sole interaction with plaintiff), defendant wrote and mailed the letter that is the subject of this lawsuit to Greg Klatecki, the village president. Defendant conceded that he knew the village president was not plaintiff's immediate supervisor and that he had done no investigation into the organizational structure of the Village government to learn the supervisor's identity. Plaintiff alleged that the letter was published to 10 other Village employees. The letter begins as follows:

"I'm filing a formal complaint about behavior of a certain individual which may constitute extortion in my opinion. As you know extortion constitutes a criminal behavior. I'm the victim and its [sic] has caused me damages, which the Village is responsible for."

Later in the letter, the following language appears:

"In my opinion, I'm the victim of extortion by employee [sic] of the ...


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