Illinois Appellate Reaffirms That Only Meritless Lawsuits Can Be the Subject of SLAPP Motions

In Capeheart v. Terrell, the Illinois Appellate Court confirmed that only meritless cases can be the subject of a SLAPP motion to dismiss. In Capeheart, plaintiff, a university professor, alleged that statements made in the course of a university faculty council meeting charging that she was “stalking” a student who had filed a complaint against her were defamatory. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss based upon the Illinois Citizen Participation Act, claiming that the lawsuit was a SLAPP in retaliation for the exercise of First Amendment rights. In reversing the trial court’s grant of the motion to dismiss and award of attorney’s fees, the court found, “[w]hile Terrell’s statement was made during a meeting of a governmental entity, he is not necessarily immunized from liability simply because of the governmental setting.” It was uncontested that no stalking complaint had been filed against plaintiff. Further, the lawsuit was filed nearly one year after the statements and sought $500,000, “not millions as in the classic SLAPP scenario.” Accordingly, the court found that it could not find that the plaintiff’s suit was meritless, retaliatory or intended to prevent defendant from exercising his constitutional rights.

Similary, in Stein v Krislov, a former associate of a law firm and its principal filed a defamation action based upon statements made to a judge concerning plaintiff’s professional experience. Defendants moved to dismiss the defamation count claiming it was a SLAPP. In reversing the grant of the SLAPP motion, the court found, “we conclude that plaintiff’s libel claim was not meritless where defendants failed to satisfy their burden of demonstrating the truth of the contents of [defendant’s] letters.”

Capeheart and Krislov each demonstrate that to succeed on a SLAPP motion in Illinois, the defendant must demonstrate that the plaintiff’s lawsuit lacks merit. The mere fact that the lawsuit is in response to statements made in a public forum will not suffice.

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