A man who claimed Menards slandered him when it accused him of shoplifting is victorious after a state appellate court upheld a lower court’s decision to award him $20,000 in damages.
Plaintiff John Madden was charged with shoplifting after Menards employees told a police officer in Marion in far southern Illinois, they believed he had left the store with unpaid merchandise. In reality, Madden’s friend paid for part of his purchase on one credit card, and while he was attempting to put the rest of the items on a separate card, Madden carried the purchased items out to the parking lot. The second card was declined, and the friends left the store without the rest of their items.
After being charged, Madden took the purchase receipt back to the store to prove the items he took had been paid for. The store manager contacted the state’s attorney’s office and dropped the charges.
Illinois Fifith District Appellate Justice Judy Lynn Cates | Illinoiscourts.gov
Madden’s initial defamation complaint was dismissed based on a finding that the claim was barred by so-called absolute privilege, a legal doctrine which protects otherwise defamatory statements if they are made as part of a court pleading or to law enforcement as part of a criminal investigation, among others. Menards had argued absolute privilege because the defamatory statements were made to a police officer for the purpose of opening a criminal investigation.
Undeterred, Madden filed an amended complaint claiming Menards was negligent in training its employees and in investigating the theft. He also claimed Menards “acted with conscious disregard and utter indifference” in accusing him of a theft it should have known he didn’t commit and in not taking any action to help him expunge his criminal record.
In the amended complaint, Madden included two assertions: that he did not commit the crime of retail theft as alleged, and, secondly, that he did not commit the acts described in the police affidavit. In its response, Menards said it did not have enough information about the allegations and “therefore denies the same.”
Madden amended his complaint again, once more alleging defamation. This time, he claimed Menards’ answer to his complaint, in which the store denied his assertion he did not commit retail theft nor committed the acts described to police, was actually a public statement accusing him of a retail theft the store knew he did not commit.
The trial court agreed and awarded Madden $20,000. Menards appealed that decision to the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court, based in Mt. Vernon.
In its appeal, Menards claimed Madden did not prove his claim – and even if he had, the claim was barred by the statute of limitations and still barred by absolute privilege.
The appellate justices were unpersuaded by Menards’ argument that its statement of denial could have an innocent interpretation.
“In its answer, Menards essentially denied that its determination that Madden had committed retail theft was incorrect,” Justice Judy Lynn Cates wrote on behalf of the court. “The clear inference of Menards’ statement is that Madden may have stolen from one of its stores.”
The court also rejected Menards’ affirmative defenses, ruling that the store had waived the right to argue statute of limitations and absolute privilege when it failed to bring them up in earlier proceedings.
Cates, together with Justices Thomas M. Welch and Melissa Ann Chapman filed the decision as an unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23, limiting its use as precedent.