Appeal from Circuit Court of McLean County. No. 12L37. Honorable Thomas E. Little, Judge Presiding.
Plaintiff's complaint alleging tat defendant's letter to the editor concerning the way plaintiff, an assistant State's Attorney, handled a traffic ticket received by plaintiff's son constituted defamation per se and false light invasion of privacy was properly dismissed by the trial court, notwithstanding plaintiff's contentions that she was not a public official and that she adequately pleaded claims for defamation per se and false light invasion of privacy, since plaintiff was a public official to the extent that she performed duties that were peculiarly governmental in character and highly charged with the public interest, and as such, she had to plead that defendant acted with malice, but defendant's letter did not accuse plaintiff of knowingly lying to his son and, under the circumstances, did not rise to the level of defamation per se, and likewise, plaintiff failed to adequately plead that defendant acted with malice for purposes of the false light claim.
JUSTICE POPE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Knecht and Steigmann concurred in the judgment and opinion.
[¶1] In March 2012, plaintiff, Sheila Vicars-Duncan, filed a two-count complaint against defendant, Dennis Tactikos, alleging defamation per se (count I) and false light (count II). Plaintiff is an assistant State's Attorney in McLean County. In May 2012, defendant filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to sections 2-615 and 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-615, 2-619 (West 2012)), arguing plaintiff did not state a claim for defamation per se because she is a public official and did not plead malice. In December 2013, the trial court found plaintiff was a public official and granted defendant's motion to dismiss.
[¶2] Plaintiff appeals and argues the trial court erred in granting defendant's motion to dismiss. She argues she (1) is not a public official for defamation purposes, (2) adequately pleaded a cause of action for defamation per se, and (3) adequately pleaded a cause of action for false light invasion of privacy. We affirm.
[¶3] I. BACKGROUND
[¶4] Plaintiff is employed as an assistant State's Attorney in McLean County and, at all times relevant to this case, was assigned to handle the prosecution of traffic offenses. In March 2012, plaintiff filed a two-count complaint against defendant, alleging defamation per se (count I) and false light (count II) for statements defendant made in a letter to the editor published on March 20, 2011, in The Pantagraph, a Bloomington newspaper. As relevant to this appeal, plaintiff alleged defendant's statements claimed she lacked the integrity to discharge the duties of her position as an assistant State's Attorney and portrayed her in a " false light to cause others to believe that [p]laintiff used tactics of falsehoods, bullying and intimidation as a means of procuring guilty pleas from innocent citizens."
[¶5] Defendant's letter to the editor, which plaintiff attached to her complaint, stated as follows:
" My son had the pleasure of dealing with the McLean County judicial system as he was cited for a lane change violation on I-55 and given a summons with no police officer at the scene when it allegedly happened.
When he went to court he was told by the prosecutor in traffic court, a Sheila Vicars-Duncan, that there were witnesses present who simply were not, and telling my son he was fighting a case he simply could not win, in an attempt to get my son to plead guilty to a charge which was ultimately dismissed.
I expressed my displeasure in an email to Ms. Duncan with what I perceived to be the bullying of an 18-year-old by the prosecutor. She sent a response telling me all about the judicial system and what her day consists of, but not addressing the issue of her telling my son an untruth.
When I responded back to both her and her boss, a William Yoder, he actually had the nerve to respond with a condescending letter exalting Ms. Duncan's virtues, apologizing [for] my son's inability to understand what his prosecutor was actually saying ('cause we all know that convictions are not really what she is going for) and dismissing me with a 'Thank you for your comments.'
I guess with Mr. Yoder at the helm, the law will be upheld, but there will be no justice."
[¶6] In May 2012, defendant filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to sections 2-615 and 2-619 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-615, 2-619 (West 2012)). In the first part of the motion, as relevant to this appeal, defendant argued count I should be dismissed pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code because plaintiff (1) is a public official, and as a public official, plaintiff " must plead malice," but she " failed to plead malice in Count I" ; and (2) " pled no facts that will withstand a motion to dismiss under Qualified Privilege, Innocent Construction, Opinion, or Malice against a Public Official." In the second part of the motion, defendant argued count I should be dismissed pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code because the statements were " not defamatory on their fac[e]." In the third part of the motion, defendant argued count II should be dismissed pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code because plaintiff did not plead malice and she had no facts to ...