A Chicago appellate panel has affirmed a lower
court ruling that two North Side businessmen must pay the legal costs incurred
by a failed aldermanic candidate while fighting their defamation lawsuit,
because the suit was “politically motivated.”
The Dec. 30 decision was penned by Justice
Robert Gordon, with concurrence from Justices Jesse Reyes and Bertina Lampkin.
The order was filed under Supreme Court Rule 23, which means it may not be
cited as precedent, except in the limited circumstances permitted by Rule 23.
The ruling favored Thomas M. O’Donnell in his
quest for sanctions against Garrett P. Fitzgerald and Timothy P. Gibbons.
O’Donnell ran as a Democrat for 47th
Ward alderman in 2011, but lost. He was also president of the Ravenswood
Community Council in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood on the city’s North Side
from 2001 to 2012.
Fitzgerald was executive director of the North
Center Chamber of Commerce in the North Center neighborhood, just south of
Ravenswood. Gibbons ran Tim’s Snowplowing, which had contracts with the
Ravenswood Community Council until O’Donnell lost his aldermanic bid.
Fitzgerald and Gibbons alleged O’Donnell shut off the contracts, because they
“associated” with the winner of the election, current 47th Ward
Alderman Ameya Pawar.
Pawar recently declared he would seek the
Democratic nomination for Illinois governor in 2018.
Gibbons and Fitzgerald further alleged a
vengeful O’Donnell mailed letters in November 2011 and February 2012 to public officials
and the press that defamed them. The letters allegedly claimed Fitzgerald and
Gibbons took bribes to circulate petitions for political candidates, and claimed
Fitzgerald had been fired from a political campaign for working while
intoxicated. The letters also alleged conflicts of interest existed in
connection with contracts between Tim’s Snowplowing and the City of Chicago.
Fitzgerald and Gibbons sued O’Donnell for
defamation in 2012 in Cook County Circuit Court, eventually amending the suit
three times. The plaintiffs named three other defendants, but they were
eventually dropped from the litigation.
In the suit’s third version, filed in April
2013, plaintiffs added the claim they were basing their suit in part on a
handwriting analysis, which indicated O’Donnell addressed the envelopes that
contained the letters. It was later disclosed the analyst’s report was dated
Feb. 10, 2014.
In April 2015, plaintiffs withdrew their suit,
explaining Fitzgerald was terminally ill. However, O’Donnell pressed for
sanctions against plaintiffs on the grounds the suit had been baseless.
In September 2015, Circuit Judge Eileen Brewer
approved sanctions, determining the handwriting analysis claim was not
“well-grounded in fact or warranted by existing law,” because the analysis
report was not compiled until 10 months after plaintiffs made the claim.
Brewer also noted the handwriting expert said
O’Donnell “may” have written the addresses, noting that, on the classification
scale used by such handwriting experts, “may” is one step above “inconclusive”
and three steps below “identification.” As a result, Brewer found the alleged
link to O’Donnell was weak.
“This Court finds a sufficient factual basis
that Plaintiffs’ actions were politically motivated, based solely on speculation,
and an attempt to harm the Defendants without a reasonable belief based on
direct or circumstantial evidence that O’Donnell addressed the envelopes and/or
wrote the defamatory letters,” Brewer concluded.
The judge ordered plaintiffs to pay the legal
costs O’Donnell absorbed after the analysis claim was included in the third
amended complaint, which amounted to $52,602. Defendants appealed.
Appellate Justice Gordon agreed with the
circuit judge, saying there was no evidence the analyst told plaintiffs of an
alleged tie between O’Donnell and the envelopes, before defendants claimed
there was a tie.
“Plaintiffs made their statement about
‘handwriting analysis’ before they had possession of the report,” Gordon said.
“If it were not for paragraph 46 (where the handwriting allegation is made) in
the third amended complaint, the complaint would have been dismissed.”
O'Donnell has been represented by Chicago
lawyer James P. Nally. Fitzgerald and Gibbons have been represented by the
Chicago firm of Gomberg, Scharfman, Gold & Ostler.