Judge’s Defamation Lawsuit Found Not to Constitute a SLAPP

In Ryan v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the denial of a SLAPP motion to dismiss. In Ryan, Fox’s Chicago station broadcast a series of investigative reports which focused on judges who purportedly left their courthouses early. In the broadcasts, Fox reported that its investigative team “caught” Judge James Ryan leaving his courthouse early three times and was home on one day by 1:18 p.m. The corresponding video showed a car parked in the driveway of a house. It was uncontested that the car and house depicted were not those of Judge Ryan. The following day, Fox broadcast that “While we saw the judge leave work early, we really don’t know where he went.” The judge filed his lawsuit two days after the first broadcast aired and sought $7 million in its prayer for relief., alleging that the broadcasts falsely stated that Judge Ryan was neglecting his duties and constituted defamation per se.

The defendants brought a SLAPP motion to dismiss pursuant to the Illinois Citizen Participation Act. In affirming the denial of the defendants’ SLAPP Motion, the Court noted that: (1) the proximity in time between the speech at issue and the filing of a Complaint; and (2) the extent to which the damages requested are reasonably related to the facts and constitute good-faith estimate of the extent of the injury sustained are factors to consider in determining whether a claim is in retaliation for the exercise of protected speech. However, the Court held that the Illinois Citizen Participation Act was only applicable to lawsuits which lacked any merit, explaining that “[d]efendants must show that there are undisputed facts that demonstrate plaintiff’s claim is meritless.” The court particularly noted that judges were not bound to stay in their courtrooms and the fact that a judge left a courthouse did not mean that he was not otherwise involved in the legal community or that he was neglecting his duties. Accordingly, the defendants did not show that the judge’s claims were meritless and the SLAPP motion was properly denied.

Ryan demonstrates that in Illinois, it is critical for a defendant urging dismissal on the basis of the Illinois SLAPP statute to affirmatively demonstrate that the Complaint lacks any plausible merit in order to succeed.

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