Appeal from Circuit Court of Livingston County No. 01LM50 Honorable Charles H. Frank, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Myerscough
In June 2001, plaintiff, Richard Thomas, filed an amended complaint alleging malicious prosecution against defendants, Dick Hileman and Edward Masters. The malicious prosecution action arose from a defamation action brought by Hileman, through Hileman's attorney, Masters, against Thomas. See Hileman v. Thomas, No. 4-00-0514 (December 5, 2000) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). In July 2001, defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to section 2-615(e) of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/ 2-615(e) (West 2000)), which the trial court treated as a motion to dismiss. In October 2001, the trial court dismissed Thomas's amended complaint for failure to state a cause of action in malicious prosecution.
On appeal, Thomas argues that the trial court erred in dismissing his complaint, claiming that the complaint alleged sufficient facts to support a claim of malicious prosecution against defendants. We affirm.
In 1999, defendant Dick Hileman ran for commissioner of the Village of Gardner. In April 1999, Richard Thomas wrote a letter to the editor of the Gardner Chronicle newspaper, wherein he criticized Hileman's work as the business representative of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) and urged Gardner residents not to vote for Hileman in his upcoming election.
In May 1999, after winning his election, Hileman filed a defamation action against Thomas (No. 99-L-35 (Cir. Ct. Livingston Co.)), alleging that the following statements in Thomas's letter to the editor were defamatory per se:
"'However, in 1991, Hileman wholeheartedly endorsed a Pearl Harbor-like attack on the American Dream. He aggressively supported an insidious ["]supplemental agreement["] in early 1991 way prior to the expiration of 1989-1992 contract. That supplemental agreement effectively sold-out A to Z the recalled workers and the next generation of Caterpillar workers. Hileman unabashedly supported contractualizing the following unprecedented arrangement without a fight.
Hileman even had the unconscionable audacity to support cutting bereavement to new hires (contrast page 100 against page 233). Is nothing sacred? And the above four examples are but a few terms of a total A to Z sell-out!
Many times, I have seriously asked Mr. Hileman why he repeatedly supported such agreements? Mr. Hileman, with a comical lack of sophistication, has always given a long-winded non-answer. Sadly, I have never heard Hileman express any remorse for his misleadership. If my words smack of being unforgiving, let me state that I have nothing personal against Hileman. But any rhetorical black-eye given to Hileman is nothing compared to the economic bludgeoning my generation has been receiving since Dick pioneered low wages in 1991.
Every generation is charged with the duty of passing the torch burning at least as bright as they received it. Hileman supported passing a wet match. Consequently, cigar[-]chomping Dick Hileman's leadership legacy would most likely afford him a candidacy not for commissioner, but for economic pariah of Will County. Indeed, Hileman supported the biggest bag over the head - kick in the economic crotch ever perpetrated from one generation to the next.'"
In March 2000, the trial court conducted a hearing on Thomas's motion to dismiss and dismissed the complaint with leave to amend, finding, in relevant part, that (1) the statements expressed in the letter to the editor are opinions, not statements of fact, and were, therefore, constitutionally protected; (2) the letter is non-actionable when read as a whole, applying the innocent construction rule and giving the words their natural and obvious meaning; and (3) plaintiff is a public figure and his fitness for the office of commissioner is thereby a matter of public or general interest and, accordingly, a conditional privilege attaches to the comments made. In June 2000, Hileman appealed the trial court's dismissal to this court. In December 2000, this court affirmed the trial court's dismissal. Hileman v. Thomas, No. 4-00-0514 (December 5, 2000) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23).
In March 2001 at a hearing on his posttrial motion in case No. 99-L-35 (Cir. Ct. Livingston Co.), Thomas struck his request for Rule 137 sanctions (155 Ill. 2d R. 137). The record does not indicate that any further action was taken on the original case.
In May 2001, Thomas filed a complaint in the instant case, No. 01-LM-50 (Cir. Ct. Livingston Co.), alleging malicious prosecution against Hileman and defendant Edward Masters stemming from the defamation action. Thomas contended that Hileman's suit against him was brought maliciously and with the intent to silence Thomas's criticism of Hileman and that Masters, as Hileman's attorney, should have known that Hileman had no claim against Thomas and Hileman's motivation was malicious in nature. Defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to section 2-615(e) of the Code. At the June 2001 hearing on defendants' motion, the trial court granted Thomas's request to file an amended complaint.
In June 2001, Thomas filed his first-amended complaint against Hileman and Masters for malicious prosecution, which made essentially the same allegations as the prior complaint. In July 2001, defendants again filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. In September 2001, the trial court conducted a hearing on defendants' motion. The court granted defendants' motion and dismissed Thomas's complaint with leave to amend within 14 days. In October 2001, the court dismissed Thomas's cause of action for failure to state a cause of action in malicious prosecution after he failed to file an amended complaint. Specifically, ...