Illinois Defamation Law: The Quick and Dirty

Defamation is a false, factual statement published to a third party reader or listener.  Illinois recognizes two types of defamation – libel (written) and slander (oral) and the same rules apply to both.

A defamation plaintiff must present sufficient facts establishing (1) a false statement about the plaintiff, (2) that’s not privileged, (3) to a third party; and (4) that caused damages.

A defamatory statement is per se (meaning no proof of specific damages are required)  defamatory when it’s harmful on its face.  Defamatory per se statements are those that (1) impute that a plaintiff committed a crime; (2) impute a plaintiff is unable to perform or lacks integrity in his employment; or (3) statements that plaintiff lacks ability or that otherwise prejudices the plaintiff in her profession.

Only statements that are factual (“he stole $1,000 from me”) – capable of being proven true or false – are actionable; opinions are not (“I think he’s a nut job!”).  Calling someone a crook, a traitor, trashy, a rip-off artist are examples of non-defamatory statements of opinion under prior Illinois cases.

Even per se defamatory statements are not actionable if they are reasonably capable of an innocent construction.  Under the innocent-construction rule, a court considers a statement in context and gives words their natural and ordinary meaning.  If a statement in context is reasonably susceptible to a nondefamatory meaning, it should be given that meaning.

Truth is a defense to defamation.  The challenged statement doesn’t have to be completely true; it’s enough that it’s ‘substantially true’.  A defamatory statement is also not actionable where it’s subject to a privilege.  Two privileges the law recognizes are absolute and qualified privileges.

Qualified privilege applies where as a matter of law and general policy, the defendant has an interest in or duty to make the communication such that it’s privileged.  A classic example of a qualified privilege statement involves a corporation’s statement made while  investigating an employee’s conduct.

Once a qualified privilege attaches, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant intentionally published the material knowing it was false or displaying a reckless disregard as to it truth.  “Reckless disregard” means the speaker made a statement aware that it’s probably false with serious doubts as to its truth.

Source: Coghlan v. Beck (http://www.state.il.us/court/opinions/AppellateCourt/2013/1stDistrict/1120891.pdf

Greeting Card Giant Wins $30M-Plus Jury Verdict in Trade Secrets Case (8th Cir.)

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In Hallmark Cards, Inc. v. Monitor Clipper Partners, LLC, 2014 WL 3408853 (8th Cir. 2014), the Eighth Circuit affirmed a $31.3M dollar jury verdict in favor of the greeting card giant against a private equity firm that used Hallmark’s confidential market research.

Hallmark hired a consultant to research consumer behavior as it relates to greeting cards.  Hallmark had the consultant sign non-disclosure agreements that strictly prohibited it from sharing the research findings.  The contracts also contained broad consequential damages disclaimers.

Hallmark sued under trade secrets law when it learned the consultant surreptitiously disclosed Hallmark’s data to the defendant who used the data to try to buy a Hallmark competitor.

 The jury awarded Hallmark a more than $30M judgment against the defendant equity firm including $10M in punitive damages.

Held: Verdict affirmed.

Reasons:

Missouri’s trade secrets statute (Mo.Rev.Stat. s. 417.450, 454) broadly defines a trade secret as (1) information, including (2) non-technical data, that’s (3) sufficiently secret to derive monetary value from not being known to competitors and (4) that’s subject to efforts to maintain the information’s secrecy. 

Misappropriation covers both acquisition of and subsequent use of a trade secret and occurs where a defendant (1) acquires a trade secret that defendant knows or has reason to know was obtained by improper means or (2) discloses or uses the trade secret without the secret’s owner’s express or implied consent. (*5).  

The court held that the PowerPoint slides qualified as trade secrets under the statute in view of the lack of market research available in the greeting cards market.  The scarcity of data on the subject led the appeals court to affirm the jury’s finding that the research data compiled for Hallmark met the elements of a protectable trade secret under Missouri law. 

The court also found there was evidence of the defendant’s misappropriation of the trade secrets. (**3-5). 

Upholding the damage award, the court rejected defendant’s argument that Hallmark obtained improper double recovery.  In Missouri, a party can’t recover twice for the same injury.  

Here, the Court found there were two separate injuries: (1) the consultant’s transmission of the secret data to the defendant; and (2) defendant’s (own) use of the market data. (*4).  Since the injuries were separate, Hallmark could recover separate damage amounts for each injury.

Finally, the Court affirmed the $10M punitive damage award.  Punitive damages under Missouri law are allowed where conduct is outrageous, reprehensible and shows an evil motive or reckless indifference to others’ rights. 

Defendant exhibited reckless indifference by its stealthy campaign of document destruction to cover its tracks once Hallmark learned of the defendant’s plan to buy Hallmark’s rival. 

The court found the defendant’s conduct reckless and sufficiently reprehensible to support the punitive damage award.  The Court also noted that the punitive damage award was “only” one-half of the compensatory award and that this damage ratio met due process standards. (*8).

Afterwords:

Even something as nebulous and innocuous as consumer buying trends research in the greeting card market can qualify for trade secret protection (at least in Missouri). 

Hallmark Cards also shows that a trade secrets plaintiff can recover separately for both (1) disclosure of a trade secret and (2) subsequent use by a third party without violating contract law double-recovery restrictions. 

 

Illinois Fraud and Civil Conspiracy Basics – Illinois Law

In Al Maha Trading v. Darley, 2014 WL 2459674 (N.D. Ill. 2014), the plaintiff brought fraud and civil conspiracy claims in connection with a fire truck sales contract.  The plaintiff, a Saudi Arabia-based fire and rescue services company, ordered six fire trucks and related equipment from the  Illinois-based defendant.

The plaintiff claimed the defendant submitted inflated invoices for the trucks and paid nearly $500k in secret kickbacks to plaintiff’s agent.

The Northern District denied defendant’s motion to dismiss and summarized Illinois fraud and civil conspiracy law in the process.

Fraudulent Misrepresentation and Omission

The elements of common law fraud are: (1) a false statement of material fact, (2) knowledge that the statement was false, (3) intent to induce the defendant to act, (4) reliance on the statement by the plaintiff; and (5) damages.

Fraudulent concealment has the same elements with the additional requirement that the plaintiff show the defendant omitted or concealed a material fact when it had a duty to disclose it.

The Court held that plaintiff’s claims of inflated invoices and bribes to plaintiff’s agent sufficiently alleged a misrepresentation (the false invoices) and concealment (failure to alert plaintiff to defendant’s bribe payments).

The plaintiff also adequately pled that the defendant knew the invoices were false, that plaintiff relied on them and sustained monetary damages by paying several million dollars for the trucks.

Civil Conspiracy

The Court also sustained the plaintiff’s civil conspiracy claim.  The plaintiff alleged that the defendant and plaintiff’s Fire  Chief conspired to submit excessive equipment price lists to the plaintiff so that defendant could make truck sales and cover the secret kickbacks to plaintiff’s agent.

To plead and prove a civil conspiracy in Illinois, the plaintiff must demonstrate (1) a combination of two or more persons, (2) for the purpose of accomplishing either an unlawful purpose or a lawful purpose by unlawful means, (3) concerted action, and (4) an overt tortious or unlawful act to further the plan.  (*8).

The Court found that plaintiff alleged all of these elements.  The combination consisted of defendant and the plaintiff’s agent who received the secret kickbacks.  The unlawful means consisted of defendant submitting swollen invoices and paying secret bribes to the agent.

While a conspiracy claim will normally not lie against a corporation acting through one of its officers based on agency rules (because the corporation can only act through its agents), that rule doesn’t apply in cases where the corporate officer actively participates in the tortious conduct.

Here, the plaintiff’s agent actively participated in the kickback scheme – an unlawful act taken in connection with accomplishing a lawful purpose – the sale of the fire trucks.  (*9).  As a result, the Fire Chief’s actions in arranging the bribes were separate from his role as a corporate agent.

Consumer Fraud Act – Can A Foreign Corporation Sue Under the Act?

The Court answered “yes.”  To determine whether a non-resident can invoke protections of the Illinois consumer fraud statute, the Court considers (a) the parties’ residence, (b) location of the transaction and of plaintiff’s contacts with defendant, (d) the place where the contracts were executed and performed, (e) where the deceptive statements were made, and (f) where payments were sent to and from. (*10).

The Court held that the plaintiff alleged enough of a connection with Illinois to allow it to sue for consumer fraud.  Plaintiff’s contacts with Illinois were initiated by defendant (an Illinois corporation) and the subject matter of the contract – the fire trucks – originated in and were shipped to plaintiff from Illinois.  Taken together, these factors led the Court to uphold the consumer fraud claim despite plaintiff’s foreign company status. (*10).

Afterwords:

– a foreign company can utilize the Illinois consumer fraud statute against an Illinois company – at least at the pleading stage;

–  a corporate officer who participates in a fraudulent scheme can be personally liable on a civil conspiracy claim.