A state appeals court has upheld a Cook County judge’s dismissal of a complaint filed by a man who claimed a conspiracy of his political opponents torpedoed his bid to become Cicero’s chief executive.
The Illinois First District Appellate Court upheld the ruling of Cook County Circuit Court Judge Patrick J. Sherlock in an unpublished order issued Feb. 24.
Justice Joy V. Cunningham wrote the opinion; Justices Thomas E. Hoffman and Mary K. Rochford concurred. The order was issued under Supreme Court Rule 23, which restricts its use as precedent, except under limited circumstances permitted under the rule.
Juan Ochoa said he “was a formidable challenger” to Cicero Town President Larry Dominick in 2013, but Ochoa lost in the Feb. 26 primary election.
Following the vote, Ochoa filed a complaint alleging a conspiracy to interfere with his campaign, naming as defendant Dominick, as well as Michael Del Galdo, Cicero’s general counsel, and various supporters linked to a group identified as the Cicero Voters Alliance. Del Galdo Law Group LLC also is a named defendant.
Among other accusations, Ochoa alleged named defendants Tom Tomschin and Alejandro Rueda filed objections to Ochoa’s nomination, knowing their objections were not grounded in truth, intending only to force Ochoa to spend time and money to preserve his campaign. He further said “unknown defendants dressed in uniform as Town of Cicero Community Service Officers visited supporters of Juan Ochoa who had requested mail-in ballots, and informed those voters that their mail-in ballots were fraudulent and would not count in the election.”
Ochoa also sued Ruperto Delorea, a fellow primary candidate who withdrew his candidacy, as well as several Cicero residents who petitioned to support Delorea’s nomination. He argued Delorea was a “straw candidate” intended only to split the Hispanic vote, and said some people who signed Delorea’s nomination petition knew he did not intend to fully campaign.
After extensive court activity on all sides, Sherlock on July 21, 2014, agreed to dismiss the complaint against all defendants with prejudice. On June 30, 2015, the trial court awarded some of the defendants legal fees associated with the proceedings, prompting Ochoa, a month later, to file a notice of appeal challenging the 2014 dismissal order.
In her analysis, Cunningham noted Ochoa’s “appeal does not raise substantive arguments as to whether his complaint sufficiently pleaded a claim for relief” - rather he made a procedural argument questioning the legality of combined motions to dismiss based on alternative arguments.
Ochoa, Cunningham said, relied largely on the 2013 Illinois First District Appellate opinion in Garrido v. Arena, also a case where a plaintiff who lost an election sued the winning candidate and their supporters. Garrido outlined a three-step test for determining if a suit is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, which the Citizen Participation Act forbids. That ban, per Garrido, is “designed to bar only those lawsuits that try to abuse the justice system by bringing unfounded claims in retaliation against defendants who legitimately exercise their first amendment rights.”
Although the law bars mingling distinctive claims, Cunningham wrote that’s not the same thing as “a prohibition against asserting alternative arguments for dismissal.” She further said each of the defendants’ motions to dismiss “contained separately-labeled parts which clearly delineated the parties’ alternative arguments that the plaintiff’s complaint failed to plead a viable cause of action on its face, warranting dismissal … and that the plaintiff’s lawsuit was a SLAPP prohibited by the Act, independently warranting dismissal.”
Ochoa was represented in the action by the Avila Law Group, of Chicago.
Dominick, The Cicero Voters Alliance and other defendants were represented by the Fogarty Law Office, and the firm of Laner Muchin Ltd., each of Chicago.