Wendler & Ezra's defamation suit reveals Teamsters connection, domestic battery

Steve Korris May 18, 2006, 11:35am

Attorney Brian Wendler did not have to tell the world how he hurt his wife and went to jail, but he shared the story because he thought it would help him prevail in a lawsuit.

"I pushed her back a little bit," Wendler said in a Dec. 7, 2005, deposition for a suit he filed against insurer AIG.

"She tripped and fell and scraped her hand," he said.

In the same case, Wendler identified the Teamsters union as the source of personal injury suits his firm Wendler & Ezra filed against businesses of the Cassens family.

A federal judge threw out the case, but Wendler wants to revive it - even though revival would obligate him to put seven years of his firm's tax returns in the public domain.

Wendler & Ezra originally sued AIG in Madison County Circuit Court, alleging that in 2002 the insurer posted a defamatory note on a Teamster website.

The note read, "Don't make the same mistake me and my husband did - it's a waste of time and money."

The author attached a newspaper article stating that police jailed Wendler on a charge of domestic battery.

Wendler asked Teamster webmaster Phillip Ybarrolaza to trace the note. According to Wendler, Ybarrolaza traced it to AIG.

The Teamsters changed the name in the article from Wendler to "Joe Schmoe."

Charles Armbruster of the Lakin Law Firm filed a complaint against AIG for Wendler & Ezra, alleging defamation, interference, negligence, and consumer fraud.

AIG removed the case to U.S. District Court in East St. Louis. AIG moved to dismiss, arguing that Wendler & Ezra failed to state a claim against it.

Though AIG took no responsibility for the web note, attorney Stephen Maassen of Alton argued that the note was harmless, capable of innocent construction, substantially true, and an expression of opinion.

Maassen wrote that the posting was not about the plaintiff. He argued that it related to Wendler, rather than the law firm.

AIG deposed Roy Anderson of the Teamsters. Excerpts in the court file do not give his job title.

Anderson testified that when Teamsters working for the Cassens auto business reported injuries, he referred them to Wendler & Ezra.

AIG deposed Wendler Dec. 7. Excerpts of the deposition in the court file do not identify the attorney. The attorney asked Wendler about his arrest.

Wendler said he and wife Julie Wendler celebrated a friend's birthday at a club in Maryville.

He said, "There was one friend who my wife does not like that I was talking to, and my wife didn't like the fact that I was talking to this friend, and my wife wanted to go home."

He said, "She did not want to ride home with me because she was angry."

The attorney asked the friend's name. Wendler said Lori Schlaefer.

The attorney asked why his wife did not like Schlaefer.

Wendler said, "Lori Schlaefer dated a guy on my softball team and my wife felt as if Lori Schlaefer did not like my wife."

He said, "I told my wife that if she was going to call a friend to get a ride home, that she should stay at the friend's house. So I left."

He said, "I went home and 15 or so minutes later my wife comes knocking at the door. And I did not want her to come in the house."

He said, "I was trying to push her out and she wouldn't give up. I wouldn't give up. And to get the door shut I pushed her back a little bit. She tripped and fell and scraped her hand."

He said his wife went next door and called police. He said when police saw the scrape on her hand they took him to jail.

The attorney asked how long he stayed there. Wendler said, "A couple of hours."

The attorney asked if they had both been drinking. Wendler said, "Yes, I think so. I know I had."

The next day, AIG moved to compel Wendler & Ezra to produce the firm's income tax returns from 1998 to 2004 and the personal returns of Wendler and partner Jeffrey Ezra.

Attorney Eric Mattson of Chicago wrote that AIG needed to test the firm's damage claim.

Two weeks later AIG moved for summary judgment, arguing that there was no evidence except hearsay for the claim that AIG posted the note.

AIG argued that it could have traced the note if Wendler had reported it within 90 days. According to AIG, Wendler waited eight months to report it.

Armbruster opposed summary judgment Feb. 17, claiming Wendler was told that two Teamsters chose not to hire him because of the note.

Armbruster wrote, "Roy Anderson has referred between 20 and 50 drivers to plaintiff during the past several years."

He wrote, "Mr. Anderson, when he recommends that persons use plaintiff's services, hands out a business card that says Wendler and Ezra on it."

U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifford Proud ruled Feb. 23 that Wendler & Ezra must give AIG copies of the firm's tax returns but AIG could not see the personal returns of Wendler and Ezra.

Proud wrote that he would not sign a protective order on the returns because Wendler & Ezra had not asked for one.

He wrote, "Defendants do not offer any reason why they are entitled to the personal tax returns of Wendler and Ezra. The Court sustains plaintiff's objection to production of the personal tax returns of Wendler and Ezra, but denies the objection to production of plaintiff's tax returns."

He wrote that plaintiff suggested a protective order and he declined to enter it because neither party had moved for it.

He closed with a quote from a Union Oil case: "People who want secrecy should opt for arbitration. When they call on the courts, they must accept the openness that goes with subsidized dispute resolution by public (and publicly accountable) officials."

AIG supported its summary judgment motion with a March 3 memo arguing Wendler lacked admissible evidence that he lost a single client.

AIG rejected the claim of two lost clients as hearsay.

Judge Stiehl granted summary judgment to AIG March 15. He wrote that courts have held that web postings are hearsay.

He wrote, "…there is no credible evidence linking the defendants to the web posting."

Wendler & Ezra on March 29 asked Stiehl to alter or amend his order. Armbruster claimed Stiehl committed manifest errors and ignored evidence.

In an April 17 answer AIG commented that, "…the only mistakes that plaintiff is trying to fix are its own."

Wendler & Ezra moved April 27 to file a reply longer than the court's five page limit.

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