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An Illinois appellate court recently held that a former employee could not maintain his defamation claims against his former employer concerning statements about him allegedly made by certain executives and high-ranking employees of his former employer. The court found that the allegedly defamatory statements were protected by qualified privilege which the plaintiff had not presented evidence sufficient to overcome.

Plaintiff Michael Briggs was employed by SMG Food & Beverage, a company that provided food and catering service at McCormick Place. Briggs was employed by SMG as a banquet captain, and his duties entailed access to various parts of McCormick Place. He was still employed by SMG when he filed his claims against SMG.

Plaintiff alleged that on or about August 22, 2015, there was a meeting between management and union representatives during which Shaun Beard, a senior vice president of SMG managing its McCormick Place operations, allegedly stated, “We have to move the meeting because [plaintiff] is threatening the building because he is a terrorist.” Briggs also alleged that an SMG executive and SMG’s HR director allegedly repeated Beard’s remark and stated that plaintiff’s security pass for McCormick Place access “needed to be revoked.”

On November 15, 2018, Briggs filed his action alleging that defendants defamed him at the August 2015 meeting. The complaint alleged that the statement and the repetition of it were factually false and made knowing the statement was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. Briggs further alleged that the statements were defamatory per se as they accused him of being a criminal who would engage in criminal activity and impaired his “legitimacy as an employee of” SMG and his performance of his employment duties at McCormick Place.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint as untimely, as it was filed in 2018 but alleged defamatory statements made in 2015. Briggs responded that his complaint was timely under the discovery rule as he could not have discovered the defamatory statements because they were made with the intent that they be kept confidential to prevent him from discovering them. He therefore argued that he did not learn of the statements until someone present at the meeting disclosed it to him in November 2017 and he did not learn of the repetition of the statements until March 2018. The trial court initially granted the defendants’ motion but the dismissal was reversed and remanded on appeal.

On remand, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment where they argued that the complaint was untimely and that the alleged statement that plaintiff was a “terrorist” was non-actionable opinion. Additionally, they argued that qualified privilege protected the allegedly defamatory statements because they made them in their capacity as the plaintiff’s employer and this privilege could be overcome only if it was abused. The trial court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff “failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendants’ alleged defamatory statements are protected by qualified privilege.” The trial court did not determine whether Beard’s alleged remark was opinion, finding it would be subject to qualified privilege even if it was defamatory. The plaintiff again appealed dismissal of his claims.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment for defendants because there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether their claimed qualified privilege was abused. The Court began its analysis by explaining that a defamatory statement is not actionable if the defendant can show it is (1) reasonably capable of an innocent construction, (2) an expression of opinion, or (3) subject to a privilege. The Court went on to explain that qualified privilege exists where a statement that may otherwise be considered defamatory is protected due to the circumstances or occasion of its making. “This privilege is based on the policy of protecting honest communications of misinformation in certain favored circumstances in order to facilitate the availability of correct information,” the Court noted. Under Illinois law, the Court noted that qualified privileges exist when an interest is “held by the person publishing the statement, the person to whom the matter is published, some other third person, or the public.”

While the general rule is a defamation plaintiff need only show that the defendant was negligent in making the allegedly defamatory statement, when a qualified privilege exists, the Court explained that a plaintiff must show the defendant abused the privilege, for instance by making the statements with actual malice. The Court agreed that Briggs failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact as to whether qualified privilege was abused.

The Court noted that the defendants presented evidence that Briggs left a threatening voicemail and that Beard knew of the voicemail that he and an HR director discussed the safety of the meeting in question before moving it at least partly because of the voicemail. While acknowledging some discrepancies between the affidavits of various SMG employees, the Court found that defendants presented evidence that the defendants made the statements with a good faith belief that the plaintiff presented a threat warranting moving the meeting. The Court held that the plaintiff did not proffer sufficient evidence to counter the evidence put forward by the defendants. Accordingly, the Court found that the trial court properly granted defendants summary judgment.

The Court’s full opinion is available here.
Continue Reading Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Dismissal of Defamation Claims against Beverage Company Brought by Former Employee