Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Second Division
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 11 L 4012 Honorable Michael R. Panter, Judge Presiding.
JUSTICE CONNORS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Quinn and Simon concurred in the judgment and opinion.
¶ 1 Plaintiff John Garrido lost the 2011 aldermanic election for Chicago's 45th Ward to defendant John Arena, who was backed in the campaign by the remaining defendants (with the exception of defendant Comcast Corporation). During the campaign, defendants disseminated campaign literature and advertisements that contained what plaintiff claims are outright lies. After losing the election, plaintiff filed this defamation lawsuit, but the circuit court dismissed the case under the Citizen Participation Act (735 ILCS 110/1 et seq. (West 2010)). We reverse and remand.
¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND
¶ 3 In 2011, plaintiff and Arena competed in a runoff election to become alderman for the 45th Ward. The campaign was hard fought and the election was extremely close, with Arena winning by only 30 votes in the official final tally. During the campaign, several organizations distributed campaign advertisements in support of Arena. Four of those organizations are defendants in this case: Service Employees International Union Illinois Council PAC (SEIU), Chicago Federation of Labor & UIC (CFL), Unite Here Local 1 (Local 1), and Citizens to Elect John Arena (CEJA). The fifth, defendant Comcast Corporation, is the parent company of the broadcaster that carried one of SEIU's television advertisements.
¶ 4 Plaintiff and Arena each won a plurality of the votes in the February 2011 general municipal election, but because neither won more than 50% of the total votes they were scheduled to compete in a runoff election to be held in April 2011. Arena and his supporters ran television advertisements and sent out direct mailings to the electorate in the hope of winning voters to their side. Some of the ads and mailings painted an unflattering picture of plaintiff.
¶ 5 Seven of these mailings and one television advertisement are at issue in this case. The ads presented two core allegations against plaintiff. First, the ads alleged that plaintiff had received money from a parking meter company that was involved in a highly publicized and much-debated privatization deal with the city of Chicago in early 2009. The ads essentially alleged that plaintiff had taken money from the company and insinuated that he had profited from the deal. For example, CFL sent out a mailer that featured plaintiff's picture superimposed over a parking meter alongside the words, "We pay. Republican John Garrido profits." Another ad from the same mailer contained the headline, "John Garrido Takes Money from Parking Meter Company. We Pay the Price." An ad sent out by SEIU stated, "Republican John Garrido took money from the company that brought us the parking meter deal." Another ad from CEJA claimed, "Republican John Garrido took campaign contributions from a firm that profited from the private parking meter deal." The same allegation appeared verbatim in an ad sponsored by Local 1.
¶ 6 Second, the ads alleged that, if elected, plaintiff would draw two municipal pension checks: one for his work as alderman and another for his previous career as a Chicago police officer, a practice that the parties refer to as "double dipping." The ads also implied that the practice was corrupt, or at least led to corruption. For example, one SEIU ad began, "If Republican John Garrido is elected, he will draw two city pensions – and you'll pay for both of them!" The ad continued, "With scandal after scandal plaguing our city, the last thing we need is another double-dipping, pension padding politician on the City Council." The other side of the mailer read, "After all the corruption scandals we've had, do we really want to give more tax dollars to John Garrido?" Another SEIU mailer featured the same allegations, with the reverse side featuring the headline "CORRUPTION, " under which it stated, "City Hall's patronage and corruption take enough from us already. Do we really want to add another double-dipper to the mix?" Several other SEIU mailers made identical allegations.
¶ 7 Political considerations aside, plaintiff's chief complaint about these allegations is that, in his view, they were false. According to plaintiff's complaint, he never took any money from LAZ Parking, which is the primary company that was involved in the privatization deal. Moreover, plaintiff claims that he could not receive an aldermanic pension until he had served as an alderman for at least 10 years. Plaintiff sent several cease-and-desist letters to the various defendants asking them to stop disseminating what he considered to be false information, but the defendants declined to do so. After he lost the election, plaintiff filed this lawsuit, alleging defamation per se and per quod, as well as false light, seeking a minimum of $300, 000 per count.
¶ 8 Defendants moved to dismiss, raising numerous grounds under sections 2-615 and 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615, 2-619 (West 2010)). The defendants also moved to dismiss under the Citizen Participation Act (735 ILCS 110/1 et seq. (West 2010)) (the Act). After full briefing by all parties, the circuit court found that the Act barred plaintiff's claims and dismissed the complaint. Plaintiff appealed.
¶ 9 II. ANALYSIS
¶ 10 A. Jurisdiction
¶ 11 Before reaching the merits, we must first discuss the issue of our jurisdiction over this case, which defendants have questioned due to a procedural irregularity in the circuit court. After the circuit court entered its judgment on September 16, 2011, plaintiff filed what purported to be a petition to vacate the judgment pursuant to section 2-1401 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-1401 (West 2010)). Plaintiff filed his petition on October 7, 2011, less than 30 days after the judgment. But section 2-1401 petitions can only be filed more than 30 days after the date of judgment, which is when the judgment becomes final. SeeIn re Haley D., 2011 IL 110886, ¶ 66. Realizing his mistake, plaintiff sought leave to amend his motion to reflect the correct statute, which is section 2-1203 (735 ILCS 5/2-1203 (West 2010)). The circuit court granted plaintiff's request to amend and plaintiff filed the amended motion on October 31, 2011. ...