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James Ryan v. Fox Television Stations

October 23, 2012

JAMES RYAN,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
FOX TELEVISION STATIONS, INC., FOX TELEVISION HOLDINGS, INC., LARRY YELLEN, DANE PLACKO, MARSHA BARTEL,
CAROL FOWLER, BETTER GOVERNMENT ASSOCIATION, INC., AND ANDY SHAW, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County 10 L 006258 Honorable James Egan, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Connors

JUSTICE CONNORS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Harris and Justice Quinn concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

¶ 1 In 2010, WFLD Fox News Chicago aired an investigative report on the working hours of judges in the circuit court of Cook County. The report presented information suggesting that at least four judges, one of whom was identified as plaintiff James Ryan, had been neglecting their official duties by leaving courthouses well before the end of the business day, contrary to the stated policy of the chief judge of the circuit court. The report prompted an inquiry from the supreme court and caused the chief judge of the circuit court to discipline the judges involved by transferring them to other duties. Plaintiff filed this lawsuit against defendants, which in its current form alleges defamation, false-light invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy by intrusion upon seclusion. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that it is a "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation" (SLAPP), which is barred under the Citizen Participation Act (735 ILCS 110/1 et seq. (West 2010)). The circuit court denied the motion. We affirm.

¶ 2 The investigative report originally aired in installments over four nights starting on May 24, 2010. The report was a collaborative effort between WFLD, which is owned by some of the defendants, and defendant Better Government Association, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group. (The remaining individual defendants were involved in some aspect of the investigation or the presentation of the report.) The report's first installment detailed the basic findings of the investigation. According to the report, unofficial logs prepared by the Cook County sheriff's office revealed that a large number of courtrooms in the Daley Center were not open during business hours, which normally ran until 4:00 p.m. Investigators confirmed this finding by independently surveying the courtrooms during business hours. By means of hidden cameras, the investigators also confirmed that a number of judges were leaving before the end of business hours. In one of the most explosive portions of the report, a reporter found one judge sunbathing outside of her home at around 2:00 p.m. on a workday. After being confronted by the reporter, the judge argued that she had left the courthouse early that day only because she had completed her call and had nothing further to do.

¶ 3 The report also contained a segment specifically regarding plaintiff. The report stated, "We caught him leaving the courthouse early three times. On a rainy October day, he was home by 1:18 p.m. He never returned our calls." This statement was accompanied by images of a car parked in the driveway of a house. The report named two other judges who had allegedly been seen leaving before the end of business hours. The report also included statements by defendant Andy Shaw to the effect that judges should be required to punch in and out of courthouses in order to ensure that they are working during business hours.

¶ 4 The report's second installment focused on an analysis of the costs to taxpayers of the Cook County judicial system, including judicial salaries and benefits, and it also included reactions to the investigation from members of the judiciary and the public. The report also examined various methods of disciplining and supervising judges. The report included the following exchange by defendant Larry Yellen, a reporter, and WFLD anchor Robin Robinson:

"ROBINSON: Sounds like a lack of supervision, like somebody didn't put a framework in place to get the most effective system there is.

YELLEN: You know, it might be a lack of accountability because judges are elected, as we pointed out in the piece. They're elected, that means they're accountable to the voters, but you know and I know that when people go to vote on judges, they don't know the details of whom they're voting on. It's the bottom of the ballot, everybody's tired by then, and they can't recognize all those names."

¶ 5 At the conclusion of this installment, Robinson announced that the previous night's installment contained an error regarding the evidence against plaintiff. Robinson stated:

"Last night's story, by the way, identified Judge Jim Ryan [i.e.,plaintiff] as one of the judges leaving work early. We watched [plaintiff] leaving the courthouse and said he went home. But the house and the car we showed actually belonged to a neighbor. Our bad. While we saw the judge leave work early, we really don't know where he went. We do apologize for that mistake."

¶ 6 The report's third segment focused on the Illinois Supreme Court's reaction to the previous two segments. Joe Tybor, the court's press secretary, stated that the judges' alleged behavior was "totally unacceptable and, in the court's mind, cannot be tolerated." Tybor also indicated that the supreme court planned to discuss the situation with Tim Evans, the chief judge of the circuit court, and other supervising judges in order to further investigate the situation and decide on corrective measures. Chief Judge Evans stated that he intended to take action if shown some evidence of wrongdoing by the judges involved.

ΒΆ 7 The next day, May 27, 2010, plaintiff filed the original complaint in this case, alleging a single count of defamation. (The complaint was amended about a year later to include the other three counts now at issue.) The complaint centered on the report's claim during its first installment (which Robinson conceded was incorrect during the second installment) that plaintiff was at home with ...


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