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Earl v. H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co.

June 23, 2009

PATRICIA ANN EARL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
H.D. SMITH WHOLESALE DRUG CO. AND JOHN D'AMARO, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jeanne E. Scott, U.S. District Judge

OPINION

This cause is before the Court on Defendant John D'Amaro's Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Motion) (d/e 10). Plaintiff Patricia Ann Earl filed a Response to D'Amaro's Motion to Dismiss (d/e 17). For the reasons stated below, the Motion is denied in part and allowed in part.

FACTS

According to the Complaint (d/e 1), Earl worked as a vice president for Defendant H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co. (H.D. Smith), a pharmaceutical distributor headquartered in Springfield, Illinois, from May 16, 2005, until she was terminated February 8, 2008.*fn1 Until H.D. Smith hired her, the company's Executive Team was entirely male. After Earl joined the staff, H.D. Smith hired another woman as a vice president, but in January of 2008, the company terminated this woman. That month and the next, the company also terminated several female managers.

In the months leading up to January of 2008, Earl led the negotiation of a major contract with a Pennsylvania hospital system. During these negotiations, the hospital system complained to Earl about payment problems with H.D. Smith. These complaints were brought to the attention of D'Amaro, H.D. Smith's Chief Financial Officer. Earl alleges that "[o]n or about January 31, 2008, D'Amaro, unfairly and untruly accused plaintiff of acting in an unethical manner in relationship to the contract. . . . This untrue allegation of unethical conduct was reported to Earl's superior, and Earl was terminated on February 8, 2008." Complaint ¶¶ 19-20. Further, Earl claims that "D'Amaro's accusation of unethical behavior was untrue when he published it to H. Dale Smith, the president and CEO of H.D. Smith." Id. ¶ 42. Earl does not know the content of D'Amaro's accusation, and she received no opportunity to refute it. She alleges that as a result of her termination, she has lost income and suffered great emotional distress.

On October 9, 2008, Earl filed a seven-count Complaint in this Court. She has brought federal employment discrimination claims against H.D. Smith, and Counts IV, V, and VI are supplemental state law claims against D'Amaro.*fn2 In Count IV, she alleges that D'Amaro defamed her to the president and CEO of H.D. Smith when he accused her of unethical behavior. In Count V, she alleges that D'Amaro's accusation amounted to intentional infliction of emotional distress. In Count VI, she accuses D'Amaro of intentional interference with her employment contract with H.D. Smith.

ANALYSIS

D'Amaro has moved to dismiss Counts IV, V, and VI under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Rule 12(b)(6) provides that dismissal is proper where a complaint fails to state a claim on which relief can be granted. When a complaint's allegations do not "plausibly suggest that the plaintiff has a right to relief, raising that possibility above a 'speculative level,'" the Court must dismiss. EEOC v. Concentra Health Svs., Inc., 496 F.3d 773, 777 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Indeed, the Supreme Court has held that Bell Atlantic "retired the Conley no-set-of-facts test" prohibiting dismissal unless the complaint established that the plaintiff could prove no set of facts entitling her to relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, __ U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1944 (2009). Now, "[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id. at 1949. According to the Seventh Circuit, a claim that is plausible on its face provides the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. Moore v. FBI, 283 Fed.Appx. 397, 399 (7th Cir. 2008).

For purposes of a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations in a complaint. Hager v. City of West Peoria, 84 F.3d 865, 868-69 (7th Cir. 1996); Covington Court, Ltd. v. Village of Oak Brook, 77 F.3d 177, 178 (7th Cir. 1996). Here, for the purpose of ruling on the pending Motion, the Court has accepted as true the factual allegations in Earl's Complaint. Based on these facts, Counts IV and VI survive D'Amaro's Motion, but Count V is dismissed without prejudice.

I. COUNT IV: EARL'S CLAIM FOR DEFAMATION

First, the Court denies the Motion to dismiss Count IV. D'Amaro argues that Count IV should be dismissed for failure to state a claim of defamation because an accusation that someone is "unethical" is too vague to constitute the objectively verifiable statement of fact necessary for a defamation claim. In Illinois, a plaintiff alleging defamation must establish that: (1) the defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff; (2) the defendant made an unprivileged publication of that statement to a third party; and (3) the publication caused damages. Solaia Tech., LLC v. Specialty Pub. Co., 852 N.E.2d 825, 839 (Ill. 2006). A statement imputing a lack of integrity in the discharge of employment can constitute defamation per se. Kolegas v. Heftel Broadcasting Corp., 607 N.E.2d 201, 208 (Ill. 1992)

Yet, statements of opinion generally are not actionable. Owen v. Carr, 497 N.E.2d 1145, 1148 (Ill. 1986). Only if a statement of opinion is actually a false assertion of fact can it constitute defamation. Kolegas, 607 N.E.2d at 209; see also Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 19 (1990). The vaguer and more general an opinion, the less likely it is an objectively verifiable assertion of fact. Wynne v. Loyola Univ. of Chicago, 741 N.E.2d 669, 676 (Ill.App. 1st Dist. 2000). Moreover, even an easily understood term can be non-actionable if it is so broad that it lacks the detail necessary to confer a precise meaning. Hopewell v. Vitullo, 701 N.E.2d 99, 104 (Ill.App. 1st Dist. 1998). For example, while the term "incompetent" is easily understood, it is too broad to be defamatory. Id. Similarly, the term "crappy" also is not defamatory. J. Maki Constr. Co. v. Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters, 882 N.E.2d 1173, 1183 (Ill.App. 2d Dist. 2008).

According to D'Amaro, Earl's claim that he accused her of acting in an unethical manner cannot succeed because the word "unethical" is so broad that it lacks the precision necessary for a factual statement. Yet, Count IV does not allege that D'Amaro explicitly called Earl "unethical." It does not specify what words D'Amaro allegedly used. Indeed, Earl indicates that she does not know the exact content of D'Amaro's accusation; she knows only that on or about January 31, 2008, he accused her of some form of unethical conduct regarding the contract she was negotiating. The Court cannot conclude at this point that the allegedly defamatory statement is not factually verifiable.

Moreover, Earl's allegation provides D'Amaro sufficient notice to defend against her claim. While some district courts in this circuit have ruled that a defamation plaintiff must set forth the allegedly defamatory words with specificity to survive a motion to dismiss, even they have not held that a verbatim recitation is necessary. See Cowgill v. Whitewater Pub., 2008 WL 2266367, at *1 (S.D.Ind. May 29, 2008); Fishering v. City of Chicago, 2008 WL 834436, at *2 (N.D.Ill. March 27, 2008); United Laboratories, Inc. v. Savaiano, 2007 WL 4557095, at *11 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 21, 2007); Robinson v. Morgan Stanley, 2007 WL 2815839, at *7 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 24, 2007). Moreover, this Court is persuaded by the line of cases holding that a plaintiff need only allege the substance of the words at issue, provided her allegation contains sufficient contextual detail to provide a defendant notice of ...


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