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Steve Sandholm v. Richard Kuecker et al

January 20, 2012

STEVE SANDHOLM,
APPELLANT,
v.
RICHARD KUECKER ET AL., APPELLEES.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Burke

JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Freeman, Thomas, Garman, Karmeier, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 At issue in this appeal is the applicability of the Citizen Participation Act (Act) (735 ILCS 110/1 et seq. (West 2008)), commonly referred to as the anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) statute, to a lawsuit alleging intentional torts based on alleged statements by the defendants attacking the plaintiff's reputation. The circuit court dismissed plaintiff's lawsuit in its entirety, finding defendants immune from liability under the Act. The appellate court affirmed. 405 Ill. App. 3d 835. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the judgments of the appellate and circuit courts and remand the cause to the circuit court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

¶ 2 BACKGROUND

¶ 3 The plaintiff, Steve Sandholm, filed his initial complaint in the circuit court of Lee County on April 25, 2008. Plaintiff subsequently filed three amended complaints, alleging multiple counts of defamation per se, false light invasion of privacy, civil conspiracy to intentionally interfere with prospective business advantage, and slander per se, against defendants, Richard Kuecker, Ardis Kuecker, Glen Hughes, Michael Venier, Al Knickrehm, Tim Oliver, Dan Burke, David Deets, Mary Mahan-Deatherage, NRG Media, LLC, Greg Deatherage, Neil Petersen, and Robert Shomaker. Plaintiff's second amended complaint alleged the following facts.

¶ 4 Plaintiff was hired as the head basketball coach at Dixon High School beginning with the 1999-2000 school year. In the 2003-2004 school year, he was assigned the additional position of the school's athletic director. Plaintiff received positive evaluations of his job performance during his entire tenure at Dixon High School.

¶ 5 In February 2008, defendants began a campaign to have plaintiff removed as basketball coach and athletic and activities director due to their disagreement with his coaching style. Plaintiff alleged that defendants made multiple false and defamatory statements in various media as part of their campaign. Defendants Richard and Ardis Kuecker, Hughes, Venier, Oliver, Burke, Deets and MahanDeatherage formed a group called the "Save Dixon Sports Committee" and established a Web site called savedixonsports.com.

¶ 6 Richard Kuecker posted a letter on the Web site titled "Hostages in the Gym," dated February 28, which stated that plaintiff badgered and humiliated players and that his conduct was excessively abusive and constituted bullying. On March 8 and again on March 10, Greg Deatherage published the "Hostages in the Gym" letter on the Northern Illinois Sports Beat Web site.

¶ 7 On February 28 and 29, Shomaker sent e-mails to school board member Carolyn Brechon, stating that plaintiff had "ruined things for everyone," and that "many people tell me that [plaintiff's] half time speeches are so profanity laced that they want to leave the locker room."

¶ 8 On March 11, Venier sent an email to Dixon school board member James Hay, stating similar comments about plaintiff's bullying and abuse of players. On March 14, Richard Kuecker sent an email to Matt Trowbridge, a reporter for the Rockford Register Star, stating that plaintiff's abusive behavior was the same as bullying; that "we were held hostage for three years"; and that plaintiff was a bad coach and an embarrassment to the community.

¶ 9 On March 19, defendants presented a petition to the Dixon school board, a copy of which was posted on the savedixonsports.com Web site. The petition stated that plaintiff abused his position of influence, exhibited a lack of positive character traits, criticized players in a way that amounted to abuse and bullying, and made demands "bordering on slavery." The petition also stated that no one, either "in-house" or "out-of-house," wanted to do business with plaintiff in his position as athletic director at Dixon High School; that plaintiff had alienated himself from all youth athletic feeder programs; and that plaintiff had "worn out his welcome in far too many circles to continue to do the complete and successful job you pay him to do." After considering the petition, the school board voted on March 19 to retain plaintiff in his positions of athletic director and head basketball coach.

¶ 10 On March 21, Venier, Richard Kuecker, Hughes, and Knickrehm appeared on WIXN Radio, AM 1460 (owned by defendant NRG Media, LLC), at the request of Knickrehm, general manager of the radio station, to discuss their dissatisfaction with the school board's decision. During the broadcast, defendants stated that plaintiff was performing adversely in his job as athletic director, that he was an embarrassment to the community, that no one wanted to do business with him, and that business owners were finding it harder to support the sports program at Dixon High School. The broadcast was posted on the savedixonsports.com Web site for republication to persons viewing the Web site from March 24 to April 10, and from April 22 to April 26. Also posted to the Web site was a "public service announcement," which was broadcast on WIXN radio. In the announcement, Venier stated that the school board had "failed miserably"; Oliver stated that plaintiff had been "getting away with this for years"; and Mahan-Deatherage stated that the problem "goes across all athletics" and was an embarrassing situation.

¶ 11 On March 21, Petersen, a former school board member, sent a letter to the school board stating that the proposed code of conduct was a "slap in the face" and that it should be directed at plaintiff "who continually demonstrates undesirable behavior and a total lack of respect for anyone." He stated further that the funding from corporate and business entities to support extracurricular programs was in jeopardy and may evaporate.

¶ 12 On several occasions in March and April 2008, Deatherage published comments about plaintiff on the Northern Illinois Sports Beat Web site and on the saukvalleynews.com Web site, including calling plaintiff a "psycho nut who talks in circles and is only coaching for his glory." Deatherage also commented that plaintiff, in his role as athletic director, was spending the sports money on the varsity basketball program to the detriment of other sports programs at Dixon High School.

¶ 13 On March 26, 2008, Ardis Kuecker posted a letter to the editor on the saukvalleynews.com Web site, questioning whether the new athletic code of conduct would force plaintiff "to stop his utilization of verbal abuse, emotional abuse, bullying and belittling--all aimed toward his players, as well as power conflicts with his fellow coaches."

¶ 14 On April 10, the members of the Save Dixon Sports Committee sent a letter to Doug Lee, president of the Dixon school board. The letter stated that for nine years, plaintiff "tore down his players to the point of humiliation"; that the situation was akin to a "classic abuse situation" in which the abuser "tells them he loves them"; that parents and players felt they could not speak up for fear of retaliation by the coach against the players; and that plaintiff was the "exact opposite" of what an athletic director should be. On the same day, defendants posted on their Web site an open letter to the school board containing the same or similar statements about plaintiff. Also on April 10, Shomaker sent a letter to school board member Carolyn Brechon, stating that plaintiff had threatened his son, Eric.

¶ 15 On April 12, Hughes sent a letter to all members of the Dixon school board, in which he stated that plaintiff's bullying, berating, and degrading of his players, threats against them, and his "slave/dog treatment of [assistant basketball coach] John Empen" should not be tolerated, and that "evil succeeds when good people do nothing."

¶ 16 On April 16, an article was published in the Rockford Register Star, in which several defendants made comments about plaintiff. Richard Kuecker stated that plaintiff "tore down" players, told them "they're no good," belittled them, "got in their face," and shook his finger at them. Hughes stated that plaintiff had blackmailed his son, Scott, by threatening to give a bad scouting report to a college if Scott did not stop criticizing plaintiff to outsiders.

¶ 17 On April 23, the Dixon school board voted to remove plaintiff from his position as basketball coach but retained him as the school's athletic director.

¶ 18 On April 24, an article was published in the Dixon Gazette and on saukvalleynews.com in which Mahan-Deatherage made the following statement: "Why does there have to be an instance of where someone is shoved and pushed? Why can't all these instances of abuse over 10 years *** isn't that enough to fire him?"

¶ 19 In May or June 2008, Shomaker met with three officers of the Junior Dukes Football Program and told them that plaintiff had treated student athletes badly and used foul or profane language toward students.

¶ 20 Counts I through XII alleged defamation per se against all defendants except Petersen. Plaintiff alleged that defendants' false and defamatory statements imputed an inability to perform and/or a want of integrity in the discharge of his duties as basketball coach and athletic director; prejudiced his ability to perform his job duties; falsely imputed that plaintiff had engaged in criminal activity; and caused presumed damages to his reputation. Counts XIII through XXII, as well as count XVI, alleged false light invasion of privacy against all defendants except Petersen and Ardis Kuecker. These counts alleged that defendants' derogatory and false statements placed him in a false light before the public and were made with actual malice or with reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the statements. Count XXIII alleged civil conspiracy to interfere with prospective business advantage against all defendants except Petersen, based on the fact that plaintiff had a reasonable expectancy to enter into a valid business relationship with the Dixon School District to continue his employment as head boys basketball coach through the 2010-2011 school year. Finally, counts XXIV and XXV alleged that Petersen's actions as an individual constituted slander per se and intentional interference with prospective business advantage.

¶ 21 Following the filing of plaintiff's second amended complaint, defendants filed separate motions to dismiss pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2008)). Defendants contended, among other things, that the second amended complaint constituted a SLAPP specifically prohibited by the Act. The Act applies to "any motion to dispose of a claim in a judicial proceeding on the grounds that the claim is based on, relates to, or is in response to any act or acts of the moving party in furtherance of the moving party's rights of petition, speech, association, or to otherwise participate in government." 735 ILCS 110/15 (West 2008). The Act immunizes from liability "[a]cts in furtherance of the constitutional rights to petition, speech, association, and participation in government ***, regardless of intent or purpose, except when not genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome." 735 ILCS 110/15 (West 2008).

¶ 22 In response to the dismissal motions, plaintiff filed a responsive pleading arguing that defendants' actions were not "in furtherance of the constitutional rights to petition," and, even if they were, that such actions were "not genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result or outcome." On the date of the hearing on the motions to dismiss, plaintiff filed an additional written response. He argued that the Act is unconstitutional as applied to him as well as to all public employees in the state. Plaintiff based his constitutional arguments on article I, section 12, of the Illinois Constitution (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 12), which guarantees a right to a legal remedy for all injuries or wrongs received to a person's privacy or reputation, and article I, section 6 (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 6), which grants individuals the right to be free from invasions of privacy. The circuit court delayed the hearing to allow defendants to respond to plaintiff's constitutional arguments.

ΒΆ 23 Following the hearing, the circuit court issued a memorandum opinion and order dismissing plaintiff's second amended complaint in its entirety, finding defendants immune from all claims pursuant to the Act. The court did not reach ...


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