MOUNT VERNON - Seeking to reinstate his lawsuit against the Madison County Record, disbarred attorney Amiel Cueto told a panel of judges at the Fifth District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon that the newspaper tried to "frame" him for the same kind of crime for which he had been wrongfully convicted.
Cueto's 2006 suit over an item in the newspaper that discussed his relevance to the candidacy of his brother, Lloyd Cueto, for St. Clair County Circuit Judge, was dismissed last year by a judge who ruled there was "a reasonable non-defamatory construction of the defendant's article."
Fifth District Appellate Justices Bruce Stewart and Stephen Spomer heard the case along with Fourth District Appellate Justice Thomas Appleton on Wednesday.
Cueto was convicted of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to defraud the United States in 1997 and served six years in federal prison. He was disbarred by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2004.
Representing himself pro se, Cueto said the article, which was published in January 2006, was "another swipe at me."
His suit was filed in St. Clair County. But 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. The case was assigned to Judge G. Michael Prall, a circuit judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit in Bloomington.
Prall took over after St. Clair County Associate Judge Vincent Lopinot recused himself at a hearing on the Record's motion to dismiss Cueto's second amended complaint.
In April 2008, Prall ruled that Cueto's claim was barred by the "Innocent Construction Rule" and granted the Record's motion to dismiss Cueto's third amended complaint.
Cueto contended that the Record's attorneys violated a St. Clair County local rule that prevents a motion that has been ruled upon by one judge from being renewed before another judge.
Cueto said that Lopinot, in denying the Record's motion to dismiss the original complaint, had ruled that Cueto's claim was not barred by the Innocent Construction Rule.
Cueto argued that the third amended complaint contained the same claim as the original complaint and that Prall should not have dismissed the case in light of Lopinot's ruling on the motion to dismiss the original complaint.
Representing the Record, Chicago attorney Steve Pflaum argued that Judge Prall correctly concluded that Cueto's claim was barred by the Innocent Construction Rule.
Viewed in context, the article could reasonably be construed to have an innocent meaning, namely, that Cueto was still a politically influential person who was relevant to his brother's judicial candidacy, Pflaum said.
Pflaum told the judges that Cueto's claim was barred by the Innocent Construction Rule even if the article also could be read to have a defamatory meaning.
"We don't balance a reasonable innocent construction against a defamatory construction," Pflaum said.
Pflaum also took issue with Cueto's argument regarding St. Clair County's local rule.
He argued that Prall correctly concluded that the Record did not violate the local court rule because it was not a "renewed" motion.
The Record's first motion to dismiss sought dismissal of the original complaint, while its later motion sought dismissal of the third amended complaint.
In addition, because there was then a case pending in the Illinois Supreme Court in which the Court was being urged to abandon the Innocent Construction Rule, the Record did not assert the Innocent Construction Rule as a ground for dismissal of the original complaint.
Pflaum stressed that the Record has apprised Judge Prall of Judge Lopinot's ruling and had even provided a copy of that ruling and the Record's original motion to dismiss.
The Appellate Court took the matter under advisement. A decision is not expected for several months.