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Madison v. Frazier

March 26, 2007

CARL MADISON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
RENATTA FRAZIER, KOURTNEY W. MITCHELL, RENATTA'S HEART, INC., AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, AND THE FRAZIER FOUNDATION, INC., AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard Mills, U.S. District Judge

OPINION

The Court allows the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. This libel and false light case is closed.

FACTS

Renatta Frazier is a former City of Springfield police officer. The City's attempt to fire her led to a major investigation and a large financial settlement. Frazier and her son Kourtney W. Mitchell wrote a book about her experiences and Renatta's Heart, Inc. published it in 2005. The book is entitled The Enemy In Blue. The Frazier Foundation, Inc. markets the book. All of these entities are Defendants in this suit. They will be collectively referred to as "Frazier."

One of the people Frazier wrote about in The Enemy In Blue is Plaintiff Carl Madison ("Madison"). Madison was the president of Springfield's local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the "NAACP") when police officials sought to fire Frazier. After officials initiated Frazier's firing, she contacted Madison to gain the NAACP's assistance. Frazier included her account of her experience with Madison in The Enemy In Blue.

Madison, who concedes he is a public figure, contends that Frazier's book libels him and portrays him in a false light. Frazier moves for summary judgment on Madison's claims. The Court has read the parties' briefs and the materials submitted in support thereof.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A motion for summary judgment must be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); see also Herman v. National Broadcasting Co., Inc., 744 F.2d 604, 607 (7th Cir. 1984), cert. denied, 470 U.S. 1028 (1985). When determining whether factual issues exist, a "court must view all the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." See Black v. Henry Pratt Co., 778 F.2d 1278, 1281 (7th Cir. 1985). However, "[s]ummary judgment is appropriately entered 'against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.'" See McKenzie v. Illinois Department. of Transportation, 92 F.3d 473, 479 (7th Cir. 1996) (quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322, 106 S.Ct. at 2552 (1986)).

To successfully oppose a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must do more than raise a "metaphysical doubt" as to the material facts. See Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1355-56, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). She "must come forward with 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 587, 106 S.Ct. at 1356 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)). "Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no 'genuine issue for trial.'" Id. "Although [the court] must, for purposes of summary judgment review, draw any inferences from the record in favor of [the plaintiff, it is] not required to draw every conceivable inference from the record. [It] need draw only reasonable ones." See Tyler v. Runyon, 70 F.3d 458, 467 (7th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted).

ANALYSIS

Madison's Libel Claim

Libel and slander are "treated alike and the same rules apply to a defamatory statement regardless of whether the statement is written or oral." See Bryson v. News America Publications, Inc., 672 N.E.2d 1207, 1215 (Ill. 1996) (citations omitted). To state a defamation claim, a plaintiff must show that "the defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff, the defendant made an unprivileged publication of that statement to a third party, and that this publication caused damages." Solaia Tech., LLC v. Specialty Publ'g Co., 852 N.E.2d 825, 839-40 (Ill. 2006) (citations omitted). Defamatory statements are those that "harm a person's reputation to the extent it lowers the person in the eyes of the community or deters the community from associating with her or him." Id. at 840 (citation omitted). Statements can be defamatory per se or defamatory per quod. Tuite v. Corbitt, 2006 WL 3742112, *4 (Ill. 2006) (citation omitted). Statements are defamatory per se if their "harm is obvious and apparent on [their] face." Solaia, 852 N.E.2d at 839. Because damage to a person's reputation is not presumed in a defamation per quod action, a plaintiff must plead and prove special damages. Tuite, 2006 WL 3742112, *4 (citation omitted). Madison has not pled special damages. Thus, he can only recover for per se defamation.

Illinois law has five types of statements that are considered defamatory per se: "(1) words that impute a person has committed a crime; (2) words that impute a person is infected with a loathsome communicable disease; (3) words that impute a person is unable to perform or lacks integrity in performing her or his employment duties; (4) words that impute a person lacks ability or otherwise prejudices that person in her or his profession; and (5) words that impute a person has engaged in adultery or fornication." Solaia, 852 N.E.2d at 839-40. However, statements that are reasonably capable of innocent construction are not actionable. Id. Under the "innocent-construction rule," a court must consider the statement in context and give natural and obvious meaning to its words and the implications arising from them. Id. "'[I]f, 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.'" Id., quoting Chapski v. Copley Press, 442 N.E.2d 195, 199 (Ill. 1982). Furthermore, defamatory per se statements that are not subject to innocent construction still may enjoy constitutional protection as an expression of opinion. Id. "'It is well established that statements made in the form of insinuation, allusion, irony, or question, may be considered as defamatory as positive and direct assertions of fact.'" Id., quoting Berkos v. National Broadcasting Co., 515 N.E.2d 668, 689 (Ill. 1987) (citations omitted). "[A] defamatory statement is constitutionally protected only if it cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating actual fact." Id. (citation omitted). In making this determination, courts consider "whether the statement has a precise and readily understood meaning; whether the statement is verifiable; and whether the statement's literary or social context signals that it has factual content." Id. (citations omitted). "If a statement is factual, and it is false, it is actionable." Id. A given statement may convey entirely different meanings when presented in different contexts.

The "fantasy section" describes Frazier's imaginary interaction with community leaders. She "fantasized" that she was laying on the streets of Springfield bleeding. The Enemy In ...


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