Panel affirms dismissal of defamation suit against Cook County judge

By Bethany Krajelis | Feb 24, 2014

The First District Appellate Court has upheld the dismissal of a defamation suit that a since-suspended attorney brought against Cook County Associate Judge James E. Snyder in 2012.

The First District Appellate Court has upheld the dismissal of a defamation suit that a since-suspended attorney brought against Cook County Associate Judge James E. Snyder in 2012.

In an unpublished order handed down Friday, the appeals panel affirmed Circuit Judge James N. O'Hara’s decision to dismiss ‘Lanre O. Amu’s suit that accused the judge of “maliciously” calling him “a flim flam attorney” at a court hearing.

“[W]e conclude the circuit court properly found it lacked jurisdiction to hear this suit based on sovereign immunity principles and affirm the dismissal,” the panel held. “Moreover, even if the circuit court did have jurisdiction, we would find the circuit court also properly concluded defendant was protected by judicial immunity.”

Justice Mary K. Rochford delivered the court’s 11-page order, in which Justices Bertina E. Lampkin and Jesse Reyes concurred.

In his suit against Snyder, Amu claimed the judge, in allegedly making the statement he was a “flim flam attorney,” intended to mean he was “a fraudulent attorney, a swindler -- an attorney who takes money from people by fraud or deceit, and a criminal."

Amu –who the Illinois Supreme Court suspended on an interim basis in August pending the outcome of his disciplinary proceedings--accused Snyder of making the purported statement at a January 2012 hearing in the case of Allen Henderson v. World Hyundai Motors of Matteson, et al.

He was not involved in any proceeding before the judge at the time he allegedly made the statement, according to the panel’s order that notes Amu claimed Snyder made the “flim flam” statement to or in front of at least three people, including one lawyer.

In his suit, Amu asserted Snyder’s alleged defamation was "part and parcel of a well-orchestrated scheme by the defendant and his company, motivated solely by personal animosity and personal vendetta."

The scheme, he claimed, was based, in part, on a disagreement he had with Snyder’s friends, one of whom was retired Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Chiola, as well his alleged desire to “oppress …rubbish… bankrupt … and totally destroy” him.

Representing Snyder in the defamation suit, the office of the Illinois Attorney General moved for dismissal, arguing that the court didn’t have jurisdiction to hear Amu’s suit based on sovereign immunity and that Snyder was further protected by judicial immunity.

In an affidavit, Snyder asserted that any statements he may have made in the Henderson case “were made during court proceedings,” and that he never acted outside his official capacity as an associate judge, according to the panel's order.

O’Hara, the circuit judge, granted Snyder’s motion to dismiss after finding he did not have jurisdiction to hear that case. In his three-page dismissal order, he went on to say that even if he had jurisdiction, judicial immunity fully protected Snyder from the suit.

Amu appealed, arguing that O’Hara was wrong to dismiss the matter because Snyder was acting in a personal capacity when he made the purported statement, which took sovereign and judicial immunity off the table.

Like the lower court, the appeals panel rejected Amu’s argument and determined the immunity doctrines protected Snyder.

In the panel’s order, Rochford explained that she and her colleagues applied the three-factor test courts use to determine if actions against a state employee are actually against the state. She wrote no one disputes that as an associate judge, Snyder is a state employee.

The three factors, she notes, are whether the “1) whether the official allegedly acted beyond the scope of his authority; (2) whether the duty the official allegedly breached is owed solely by virtue of State employment; and (3) whether the action of the official allegedly took involved matter within his normal and official functions."

Rochford wrote that in his amended complaint, Amu claimed Snyder was acting in his personal capacity, but identified him as an associate judge. She also notes that Amu sought information about Snyder’s personal and professional relationships in his interrogatories.

“Despite plaintiff's protestations that his suit deals with defendant in his personal capacity, the amended complaint is crafted to veil the fact plaintiff believed he was defamed by defendant in his capacity as an associate judge and defendant was acting as part of a broader court-based scheme against him,” Rochford wrote.

“Plaintiff," she added, "cannot avoid sovereign immunity by merely identifying his suit as one brought against defendant in his personal capacity.”

The panel went on to determine that Snyder’s affidavit satisfied the first two criteria of the three-part test and in regards to the third factor, found that Amu did not allege Snyder “owed him a duty independent of his state employment.”

And even if the three-part test wasn’t met, the appeals panel held it still had to “consider whether a judgment for plaintiff would operate to control the actions of the State.”

“We find a judgment for plaintiff would have an adverse impact against the State,” Rochford wrote. “Such a judgment would invade the provinces of the judiciary and impede defendant's ability, as an associate judge and an employee of the State's judicial system, to control his docket and preside over his cases without fear of suit.”

She added, “Again, it is clear this suit is one which, under sovereign immunity principles, must be considered to have been brought against the State.”

In a footnote, Rochford noted that on appeal, Snyder asked the panel to take judicial notice that the Supreme Court suspended Amu’s law license pending the outcome of his disciplinary matter.

Amu, the footnote states, objected to the request, saying his interim suspension was irrelevant to his appeal. Rochford wrote the panel didn’t need to consider his interim suspension because it resolved the matter “on grounds wholly independent of the disciplinary proceedings.”

The disciplinary case the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) brought against Amu in 2011 remains pending.

In its four-count complaint, the ARDC accused Amu of misconduct for making statements that challenged “the integrity and fairness” of Chiola, as well as fellow Cook County judges Irwin S. Solganick, Francis J. Dolan and Lynn M. Egan.

The commission asserts in its complaint that Amu knew the statements he made about these judges were “false,” “unfounded” and “baseless” in violation of Supreme Court rules.

According to the ARDC complaint, the statements Amu allegedly made about the four judges stem from adverse rulings rendered against his clients in various cases between 2004 and 2011.

In 2004, for example, the commission alleges that Amu called Dolan “a very sophisticated scam artist judge” and “a henchman for the defendant insurance company” after she barred witnesses from testifying against a business that Amu’s clients were suing.

The ARDC further claims that in 2011, Amu posted a 23-page document on his law firm’s website titled “An Open Letter to the Illinois Appellate Court,” in which he accused Egan of racial bias and corruption.

The commission's Hearing Board found these and other statements Amu is accused of making about the judges to be “so reckless as to be considered a knowing misrepresentation.”

Before the Hearing Board, Amu stood by his statements and argued they should be held to be true as none of the judges opted to testify in the matter. He argued his statements were constitutionally protected speech and maintained that he, as an African immigrant, was a victim of racial discrimination.

Although the ARDC administrator urged the Hearing Board to recommend Amu be disbarred from the practice of law, both the Hearing and Review boards have recommended a three-year suspension.

The Supreme Court, which has the final say in disciplining attorneys, has not issued an order in Amu’s ARDC matter.

Court records show Amu filed libel/slander lawsuits against the Chicago Tribune and the Law Office of Kevin Rogers earlier this month and one against Circuit Judge Mary Eileen Brewer in March 2013.

It appears he is representing himself in these three suits and that they remain pending.

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