Court dismisses case against TRRT

A defamation lawsuit against The Rock River Times filed by former Rock Valley College (RVC) Board Trustee Don Johannes was dismissed with prejudice by Circuit Judge Janet Holmgren May 28. Since 30 days have passed without appeal, the order is final.

Holmgren ruled that an amended complaint filed by Johannes’ attorney, Cary R. Rosenthal of Chicago, “failed to state a cause of action in defamation against the defendants.”

Rosenthal argued in proceedings May 19: “I do believe this complaint is sufficient. There’s a very high burden of proof. I don’t think there is a higher burden of proof anywhere else in civil law.”

Larry Morrissey, attorney for the defendants, said: “The amended complaint does not move the ball forward any further than the original complaint did. There’s nothing in here that says what The Rock River Times published was false.

“I think the plaintiff [Johannes] is upset that someone was asking questions about what his duties were,” Morrissey continued. “He may not like that these various questions are asked of him, but the fact of the matter is he’s a public figure.”

The lawsuit against The Rock River Times, Editor and Publisher Frank Schier, and Staff Writer Jeff Havens alleging defamation was filed June 5, 2003. The lawsuit pertained to an April 23-29, 2003, article in The Rock River Times that detailed insurance packages RVC purchased from Chicago’s Rabjohns Financial Group. The article was part of a series on RVC’s leadership.

Johannes, a local insurance agent who served on RVC’s board of trustees from 1985 to 2003, was seeking damages in excess of $100,000, plus attorney’s fees, costs of suit and punitive damages.

Local attorneys Morrissey and Peter Alexander served as co-counsel for the defendants.

Holmgren’s May 28 decision read: “Specifically, the Court agrees that the additional allegations contained in the First Amended Complaint do not satisfy the requirement that the defendants must have published an untrue statement of fact made with actual malice. While the Plaintiff has alleged references to a series of articles published by the Defendants prior to the article at issue, the summary of the content of those articles makes it clear that the Plaintiff was not the subject of any of those articles. The Court agrees with the Defendants that these articles are irrelevant to this Plaintiff’s cause of action and are not in pari materia with the context held to be actionable in Colson.

“Further, none of the allegations aver any facts that establish the element of actual malice required under a The New York Times analysis. The Plaintiff’s allegations of ill will towards the College by the Defendant Havens and his alleged ‘abuse’ of FOIA requests do not meet the requirement that Plaintiff plead facts that the Defendants made statements that they either knew were untrue or that they acted in reckless indifference to their falsity. Plaintiff’s allegations are, in fact to the contrary. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants published the information about the check after contacting him to explain it and does not allege that his statement that he didn’t remember what it was for was untrue. Similarly, the Plaintiff, who has the burden of alleging facts demonstrating actual malice, fails to allege any facts that demonstrate the publication of any untrue matters.

“The New York Times standard, as reaffirmed in Gertz, Colson and their progeny, requires that the court accord breathing space essential to the exercise of the constitutional freedoms of speech and press. Where the Plaintiff has had two opportunities to plead facts which would permit his cause of action to go forward and has failed to do so, the Court grants the Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint with prejudice,” the order concluded.

See editorial.

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!