A state appeals panel in Chicago has slapped down a motion by one law firm to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a rival firm on SLAPP grounds, saying the suit isn't trying to choke off defendants' free speech, as protected by anti-SLAPP law, but rather concerns alleged attacks on the plaintiff firm’s reputation. 

The Feb. 14 ruling was authored by Justice Maureen Connors, of the Illinois First District Appellate Court, with concurrence from Justices Sheldon Harris and John Simon. The court filed the decision under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23, which means it may not be cited as precedent, except in the limited circumstances permitted by the rule. 

The appellate ruling favored the Chicago law firm of Bock & Hatch in its suit against the firm of McGuireWoods, which is headquartered in Richmond, Va., with offices around the country, including Chicago. McGuireWoods tried to claim Bock & Hatch was engaging in a SLAPP action. 

The purpose of a so-called Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, is not to win, but to muffle the political speech of opponents, by imposing on opponents the cost and hassle of a suit. Illinois law prohibits such suits. 

The case concerns two entries posted on McGuireWoods' website in 2011 and 2013, which concerned lawsuits Bock & Hatch was handling. 

The first post said Bock & Hatch obtained a list of fax recipients from a company, promising to keep the list confidential, but instead used the list to acquire clients for class action suits. The post quoted a federal appellate judge, who observed Bock & Hatch's “actions displayed a lack of integrity,” adding the “Illinois bar” should take action. 

The second post alleged Bock & Hatch “lied to a witness about keeping a list of possible faxes and recipients confidential.” 

Bock & Hatch filed suit against McGuireWoods on Jan. 15, 2014, in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging the defendant violated the Illinois Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act through libelous posts. Bock & Hatch contended the posts were false, as the federal judge never found Bock & Hatch committed misconduct or lacked integrity, and never suggested disciplinary action was warranted. 

Bock & Hatch sought an injunction against McGuireWoods. Defendants contended the posts were “fair and accurate summaries” of court opinions, then filed a motion to dismiss, alleging plaintiff's action amounted to a SLAPP. 

In August 2014, Circuit Judge Jean Pendergast Rooney, who died in December 2015, refused to toss Bock & Hatch’s suit, saying SLAPP did not apply. McGuireWoods appealed. 

Justice Connors backed up Rooney’s ruling, pointing out anti-SLAPP laws are intended to protect political rights, but such rights are not at issue in Bock & Hatch's suit. 

“Plaintiffs’ lawsuit does not resemble a strategic lawsuit intended to chill McGuireWoods'participation in government or to stifle its political expression. It appears that the goal of  plaintiffs’ lawsuit was not to interfere with and burden McGuireWoods’ free speech and petition rights, but rather to seek injunctive relief for the personal harm to their reputation from McGuireWoods’ alleged acts,” Connors concluded. 

Bock & Hatch is represented by the Daniel J. Cohen Law Office of St. Louis, Mo. McGuireWoods is defended by the Chicago firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson.

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Bock & Hatch LLC Cook County Circuit Court Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP Illinois First District Appellate Court Illinois Supreme Court McGuireWoods LLP

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