The Illinois Appellate Court upheld Mandell Menkes’ summary judgment victory in a defamation lawsuit filed by former Illinois gubernatorial candidate Tio Hardiman arising from a news broadcast during the run up to the 2014 Democratic primary.
Hardiman claimed WFLD (owned and operated by Fox Television Stations, LLC) destroyed his “good reputation as a reputable and law-abiding citizen and candidate with the voters of the State of Illinois, where the Plaintiff was well and favorably known” by publishing statements in the broadcast teaser and companion web article indicating that he had a prior conviction for domestic violence and was a former gang member. During the broadcast, Hardiman contacted the station regarding the gang member statement, and WFLD aired a clarification at the close of the broadcast, noting that Hardiman said that he had worked closely with gang members but had never been in a gang.
In the days following the broadcast, Hardiman provided additional information regarding his domestic violence history. Hardiman said that he pleaded guilty to simply battery in 1999, and the judge sentenced him to probation, with the condition that if he committed no further offenses, there would not be a conviction listed on his record. During the ensuing litigation, Hardiman admitted at his deposition that the individual he pled guilty to battering in 1999 was his ex-wife.
The Cook County circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of WFLD and against Hardiman, finding that Hardiman had failed to contradict the WFLD producers’ testimony regarding their belief in the statements’ truth. Hardiman appealed from the judgment, and the appellate court upheld the circuit court’s decision.
The appellate court concluded that the “gist or sting” of the statements that Hardiman “was once accused of beating his wife” and had a “conviction for misdemeanor domestic violence” are substantially true. The court noted that even if WFLD “used an incorrect legal term [conviction] to describe the current status of the 1999 disposition of those criminal charges, and discrepancies did not meaningfully alter the uncontroverted fact that [Hardiman] pleaded guilty to and acknowledged his criminal culpability for an act of battery against his wife.”
With respect to the “former gang member statement,” the appellate court held that it was not actionable defamation per se despite being false. The court noted that the statement does not fall within any recognized category of statements that are defamatory per se and that Hardiman failed to submit evidence of any pecuniary loss to himself (as opposed to his political campaign) attributable to the “gang member statement”. Finally, the court ruled that Hardiman—an undisputed public official—failed to come forward with any evidence that the “gang member statement” was made with actual malice—meaning with knowledge of falsity or harboring serious doubts regarding truth. The WFLD producer who drafted the teaser containing the “gang member statement” testified that she believed the statement was true at the time it aired based on previous WFLD interviews with Hardiman in which he claimed to have inside knowledge of gang activity and how gangs work, his expertise regarding “street life” and his own gang member interviews. Hardiman did not come forward with any facts to contradict the producer’s testimony, or any other facts tending to show that she was aware when she wrote the teaser that it was probably false.