Illinois Supreme Court Limits Pleading on Information and Belief in Defamation Cases

On September 24, 2009, the Illinois Supreme Court significantly limited the use of allegations based upon “information and belief” in defamation cases.  Green v. Rogers.  In Green, multiple statements were attributed to the defendant on “information and belief.”  It was alleged that the statements constituted defamationper se.  In finding that the statements, as pled, could not constitute defamation per se, the Court reaffirmed that “although a complaint for defamation per se need not set forth the allegedly defamatory words in haec verba [i.e., word for word], the substance of the statement must be pled with sufficient precision and particularity so as to permit initial judicial review of its defamatory content.”  The Court held that the statements were not pled with sufficient particularity to permit judicial review or the formulation of an answer and potential affirmative defenses.  The Court reiterated that summaries of the types of statements allegedly published are insufficient to state a cause of action for defamation.  The Court found that generic descriptions are insufficient because “without knowing what specific conduct defendant allegedly averred, we have no way of assessing whether defendant’s words were defamatory per se.”  Moreover, the Court found, that if defamation pleadings are based upon “information and belief,” the basis for such information and belief must be set forth in the Complaint.  The Court held that a defamation per se claim must be pled “with a heightened level of precision and particularity” because actual damages need not be proven.  “[I]f a plaintiff does attempt to avail himself of the extraordinary presumption that attaches to a defamation per se, he simply must plead the relevant facts on something more than his mere ‘belief.’”  The Court explained that “the facts informing plaintiff’s belief will always be within plaintiff’s direct knowledge and therefore fully capable of being pled with the requisite precision and particularity.”

Illinois is a fact-pleading jurisdiction.  The Green decision is consistent with long standing Illinois law requiring the pleading of facts with particularity.  Significantly, Green does not preclude the pleading of defamation actions on information and belief.  Rather, it merely requires that the basis of such information and belief be specifically set forth in the Complaint. This requirement will protect against defamation lawsuits proceeding based upon a plaintiff’s subjective spin of what, in fact, was published and may also serve to reduce the filing of certain meritless claims.

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