Judge G. Michael Prall has dismissed with prejudice a defamation lawsuit filed by Amiel Cueto against the Madison County Record.
Cueto, who served six years in prison on an obstruction of justice conviction, sued the Record on Nov. 8, 2006, over an item in the Record discussing Cueto’s relevance to the candidacy of his brother, Lloyd Cueto, for St. Clair County circuit judge.
The lawsuit was filed one day after the election, in which Lloyd Cueto defeated Paul Evans.
A judge from outside the 20th Judicial Circuit was selected to preside over the matter after the Illinois Supreme Court granted the Record’s motion for a supervisory order last October. The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts subsequently assigned the case to Prall, a circuit judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit in Bloomington.
Prall had taken under advisement on March 21 the Record’s motion to dismiss Cueto’s third amended complaint. The Record sought dismissal on the basis that the statements challenged by Cueto in an article published on Jan. 30, 2006, were substantially true. The Record also sought dismissal on the basis that the article was capable of an innocent (non-defamatory) construction.
As recounted in Prall’s five-page decision, issued on April 14, one of the statements in the article with which Cueto took issue was that he was said to have owned 15 of St. Clair County’s 17 judges in the mid 1990s. Prall ruled that “(t)here is no question that witnesses made statements in official court proceedings to the effect that the plaintiff controlled judges in the mid 1990s. Plaintiff’s contention that these statements were untrue would not affect the right of the defendant to report these statements.”
Prall noted that the second issue of truthfulness is the statement by the Record that Cueto was seen at a meeting of St. Clair County judges in January 2006. The article then asked whether Cueto was “just dropping by?” Alluding to affidavit and deposition testimony that Cueto exchanged cordial greetings with judges attending the meeting, Prall ruled that he “cannot dismiss the interpretation of the plaintiff that the article states that the plaintiff was at the meeting of the judges in a formal sense as opposed to a mere casual wave and hello.”
Turning to the issues regarding the innocent construction rule, Prall wrote that the “innocent construction rule will defeat statements alleged to be defamatory if the statements can be interpreted to be reasonably capable of an innocent construction.”
Prall then addressed Cueto’s contention that the article’s reference to him as a “power broker” suggested he was exercising political influence in a criminal fashion at the judges’ meeting. After mentioning a dictionary definition of “power broker,” Prall stated that the article did not use that term in a flattering sense, but concluded that “it is reasonably capable of being interpreted as not accusing the plaintiff of any criminal activity.”
With respect to Cueto’s contention that the article accused him of the crime of obstructing justice, Prall observed that obstruction of justice requires more than political influence and that, in light of the election of Illinois judges in contested partisan political elections, the “public certainly knows that political influence will be present.”
Prall stressed that the article did not allege any act by Cueto or the judges at the judges’ meeting “which would indicate that the judges were exceeding their lawful authority in regard to the plaintiff’s presence.” Prall said it is possible to construe the article as misleading the public into believing that the judges were behaving inappropriately by having a politically influential non-judge present-an interpretation Prall said would unfortunately mislead the public as to the integrity and independence of the judiciary-but he ruled the article was not actionable because it “may reasonably be interpreted as not imputing criminal activity.”
Addressing Cueto’s claim that the article attempted to “frame” him into a crime similar to his previous convictions, Prall observed that Cueto’s “previous convictions were based on his actions as an attorney wherein the court found that he had used the court system to personally benefit himself by protecting his business partner’s illegal gambling enterprises.” Noting that no such personal benefit was imputed in the article, Prall held that a reasonable construction of the entire article is that Cueto “was and is a politically influential person and was using his influence to support his brother’s run for election as a judge.”
Finally, Prall rejected Cueto’s claim that the title of the article, “pulling strings,” imputed a defamatory meaning. “Absent a clear assertion of criminality, accusations of political influence to obtain a benefit are not defamatory.”
Prall reiterated the dispositive legal principles concerning the innocent construction rule. If “there is a reasonable non-defamatory construction of the statement, taken in its entirety, the plaintiff’s complaint cannot stand. There is to be no balancing of reasonable defamatory versus non-defamatory constructions.”
With this backdrop, Prall required only one sentence to articulate his ultimate decision: “The court finds there is a reasonable non-defamatory construction of the defendant’s article and the defendant’s complaint is dismissed with prejudice.”