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Green v. Rogers

September 24, 2009

JOHN GREEN, APPELLEE,
v.
STEVEN ROGERS, APPELLANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Thomas

Chief Justice Fitzgerald and Justices Freeman, Kilbride, Garman, Karmeier, and Burke concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

Plaintiff, John Green, sued defendant, Steven Rogers, for two counts of defamation per se and one count of civil conspiracy. The trial court dismissed plaintiff's first amended complaint pursuant to section 2--615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2--615 (West 2006)), and plaintiff appealed. The appellate court affirmed the dismissal of the civil conspiracy count but reversed the dismissal of the defamation per se counts. 384 Ill. App. 3d 946. Defendant then appealed to this court, arguing that the appellate court also should have affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff's defamation per se counts. We granted defendant's petition for leave to appeal (210 Ill. 2d R. 315(a)).

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, a practicing dentist and licensed attorney, lives in Clarendon Hills. From 2000 to 2004, plaintiff and his son were actively involved in the Clarendon Hills Little League (CHLL) program. During this period, plaintiff served at various times as a team manager, as a coach, and as director of the CHLL minor league.

In November 2004, defendant was elected president of CHLL. The following month, plaintiff submitted his name for a coaching position in the CHLL major league. On March 4, 2005, defendant sent plaintiff an email stating that the CHLL board had decided not to assign plaintiff a coaching position in the CHLL major league for the 2005 season. According to defendant's email, "[t]his decision was based on a long pattern of behavior which is not consistent with what we feel is acceptable for our coaches." Defendant added that the decision "was not made in haste" and that the CHLL board "had spent several hours in several meetings discussing the pros ands cons of the decision." Defendant then noted that, although plaintiff would not be assigned an official coaching position on his son's team, he would be free to assist his son's team as a volunteer during practices and before games. Finally, defendant invited plaintiff to call him at home if plaintiff wanted to discuss the board's decision any further.

On March 7, 2005, plaintiff sent defendant an email requesting an immediate appeal of the CHLL board's decision. In that email, plaintiff pointed out that he had been actively involved with CHLL since 2000 and that, during that time, the CHLL board had never once disciplined him, apprised him of any misconduct, or informed him of any complaints from either a parent or an opposing coach concerning his behavior as a coach. Moreover, plaintiff asserted that, because it had reached its coaching decision without first giving plaintiff an opportunity to be heard, the CHLL board had violated the Little League and CHLL constitutions, the Little League and CHLL bylaws, and plaintiff's "Due Process to a fair and impartial hearing." Plaintiff copied this email to both the district and regional directors of Little League.

On March 9, 2005, in a letter signed by defendant in his capacity as CHLL board president, the CHLL board informed plaintiff that his March 7 request for an appeal had been denied. The letter explained that the rules and regulations that plaintiff accused the CHLL board of violating do not apply to the process of selecting coaches. In addition, the letter advised plaintiff that the CHLL board had the full support of both the district and regional Little League headquarters and that both of those bodies had confirmed that the CHLL's coaching decisions were made in full compliance with all relevant procedures.

Two days later, on March 11, 2005, defendant sent plaintiff a personal email to clarify the CHLL board's decision. In that email, defendant explained that the CHLL board had not taken any disciplinary action against plaintiff but had simply rejected plaintiff's application to coach his son's team. Plaintiff would still be allowed to serve as a parent volunteer "just like 75% of the dads are." Moreover, defendant noted that the CHLL board was willing to place plaintiff's son on a team coached by one of plaintiff's friends, "to give you the best opportunity to participate in whatever way you work out with [that coach]." Although the CHLL board does not normally assign players for reasons such as this, defendant explained that the board did so in this situation "as an attempt to meet you half way." Defendant closed his email by stating that "[w]e aren't looking for a fight" and expressing his hope that "we can put this behind us and move on to play some baseball." Defendant copied the CHLL board on this email.

Later on March 11, 2005, plaintiff responded to defendant's personal email with an email of his own. In that email, plaintiff emphasized that he, too, was "not looking for fight" but was "merely protecting my reputation and my son's well-being." Plaintiff then reiterated that he "respectfully disagreed with the board's original decision to not allow me to coach my only son" and renewed his request to serve as a coach on his son's team. In making this request, plaintiff acknowledged that, as a coach, he would be "subject to the same scrutiny and sanctions as any other coach if my conduct ever became detrimental to the best interest of Little League." Finally, plaintiff accepted the CHLL board's offer to place his son on the specified team "so as to minimize the pain to him and my family." Plaintiff copied the CHLL board on this email.

On March 12, 2005, defendant responded via email to plaintiff's email of the previous day. Defendant began this message by expressing regret that plaintiff's initial response to the board's decision was not more like the response expressed in plaintiff's March 11 email. According to defendant, had plaintiff initially responded in the way that he did in the March 11 email, or even taken up defendant's March 4 offer "to call me and discuss," plaintiff and the board "may have been able to work something out." Instead, plaintiff "stormed back with accusations and demands and brought District 11 and the Little League Central Region into the picture." Defendant explained that, by "bring[ing] District 11 and the Central Regional office into the middle of all this," plaintiff left the CHLL board with "no alternative but to uphold our original ruling" because "[a] reversal of our decision at this point would destroy any credibility our board has with the District 11 office as well as our own Little League." In closing, defendant confirmed that plaintiff's son would be assigned to the specified team and that plaintiff "will be able to assist [the coach] in any way you can work out." Defendant copied the CHLL board on this email.

During this same time period, plaintiff was a candidate for trustee of the Clarendon Hills village board, with the election to be held on April 5, 2005. Sometime in March 2005, plaintiff was told by his running mates that a Clarendon Hills trustee and a Clarendon Hills resident were both saying that plaintiff had been kicked out of the Clarendon Hills Little League because of his temper and because of his inappropriate behavior toward children.

In January 2006, plaintiff again submitted his name for a coaching position in the CHLL major league, this time for the 2006 season. On February 27, 2006, the CHLL board met to select the managers and coaches for the 2006 season, and again the board rejected plaintiff's request.

Four days later, on March 3, 2006, plaintiff filed a two-count complaint against defendant alleging defamation per se and civil conspiracy. Plaintiff later amended his complaint to include an additional count of defamation per se. In the amended complaint, plaintiff alleges all of the facts set forth above. In addition, plaintiff alleged, on information and belief, that defendant made a series of false and defamatory statements about plaintiff over the course of the described events. First, plaintiff alleges that, at the March 3, 2005, CHLL board meeting, defendant "made false and defamatory statements about Plaintiff to other board members including that Plaintiff should not be selected as a coach because of a long pattern of misconduct with children and other misconduct." Next, plaintiff alleged that, on March 4, 2005, defendant

"made and published the following statements which he knew were false and which were made to humiliate, embarrass, and harm Plaintiff and to damage his good name and reputation in the community:

(a) that Plaintiff exhibited a long pattern of misconduct with children which was not acceptable for CHLL coaches;

(b) that Plaintiff abused players, coaches, and umpires in CHLL; and

(c) that Plaintiff was unfit to be assigned as a CHLL coach to insinuate to the community that Plaintiff was guilty of inappropriate behavior with children and others associated with CHLL."

According to plaintiff, these statements were made to the other members of the CHLL board, other members of CHLL, and certain residents of Clarendon Hills.

Concerning the CHLL board meeting that was held on February 27, 2006, plaintiff alleged, again on information and belief, that defendant at this meeting "made false and defamatory statements about Plaintiff to other board members including that Plaintiff should not be selected as a coach because of a long pattern of misconduct with children and other misconduct." In addition, plaintiff alleged that, at this same February 27 meeting, defendant "made and published the following statements which he knew were ...


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