MOUNT VERNON – The Fifth District Appellate Court ruled on July 27 that the complaint of disbarred lawyer Amiel Cueto against the Madison County Record was properly dismissed.
The Fifth District affirmed Circuit Judge G. Michael Prall, who dismissed Cueto's false light invasion of privacy claim against the Record last year.
Cueto sued in 2006 for an item in the Record discussing Cueto's relevance to the judicial career of his brother, St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd A. Cueto. The gist of Cueto's claim was that the article implicitly accused him of conspiring with St. Clair County judges, at a judges' meeting held in a Belleville restaurant, to commit official misconduct.
Prall dismissed Cueto's complaint on the basis of the innocent construction rule, a legal doctrine that precludes liability for statements that can reasonably be construed to be non-defamatory.
The Appellate Court agreed with Prall that the "article is amenable to an innocent construction; a reasonable reader would not necessarily have to understand it as accusing plaintiff of committing a crime in (the judges') meeting."
The Appellate Court ruling, an unpublished order issued under Supreme Court Rule 23, was authored by Thomas R. Appleton. Justice Appleton sits on the Fourth District Appellate Court in Springfield, but was assigned to be a member of the three-judge Fifth District panel that heard arguments on May 20 in two separate appeals involving Cueto.
Appleton noted that, "The article begins and ends with a discussion of the political career of plaintiff's brother, Lloyd Cueto."
He wrote that the key sentence in the article asked if Amiel Cueto was still relevant to the political ambitions of his brother.
Appleton concluded, "A reasonable reader could understand the article as raising the possibility that plaintiff was at the Washington Street Grille on January 19, 2006, to persuade the judges to support his brother's campaign for reelection."
"Plaintiff does not explain how, under that interpretation, the article accused him of conspiracy to commit official misconduct," he wrote.
The Appellate Court ruling came in a lawsuit that, in a span of less than three years, involved proceedings in Belleville, Springfield, Bloomington, and, finally, Mt. Vernon.
St. Clair County Associate Judge Vincent J. Lopinot had denied the Record's first motion to dismiss in 2007, finding that the article was capable of being understood as defamatory.
Lopinot recused himself after Cueto amended his complaint to challenge the article's allusion to Cueto's alleged relationship with St. Clair County judges during the mid-1990's, a time when Lopinot's father, Jerome, was a St. Clair County Circuit Judge.
Following a string of five additional sua sponte recusals, the Record filed a motion for supervisory order in the Illinois Supreme Court asking that the case either be transferred outside the Twentieth Judicial Circuit or that a judge from outside that circuit be assigned to the case.
The Supreme Court granted the motion over Cueto's objection. The Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts subsequently assigned the case to Prall, a circuit judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit in Bloomington.
Cueto again amended his complaint and the Record again filed a motion to dismiss.
Prall granted the motion, holding that Cueto's claims were barred by the innocent construction rule.
He concluded that the article could reasonably be interpreted to mean that Cueto was a politically influential person who used his influence to support his brother's campaign.
"Absent a clear assertion of criminality, accusations of political influence to obtain a benefit are not defamatory," Prall wrote.
On appeal Cueto reprised the argument, accepted by Judge Lopinot, that the threshold question is whether the challenged statement could be reasonably understood to be defamatory. If so, Cueto argued, he was entitled to have his case heard by a jury.
The Appellate Court disagreed. "(T)hat is not the threshold question, and that is not the law. The court does not ask whether the statement could be understood as defamatory; the court asks 'whether (the) statement is capable of a reasonable innocent construction," Appleton wrote.
Fifth District Justices Stephen Spomer and Bruce Stewart concurred.