Six defendants remain in a lawsuit filed by a former St. Clair County attorney who says a newspaper columnist, two newspapers and others conspired to intimidate judges and cast him in a false light.
A seventh defendant, Executive Risk Indemnity, the company that insures some of the defendants, was granted a dismissal by Madison County Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder at a hearing held on June 29. Cueto was granted leave to amend his complaint to include the insurer if he obtains evidence of its involvement in the events giving rise to the litigation.
The remaining defendants in the 2008 suit filed by Amiel Cueto include Lee Enterprises Inc., owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, its columnist William McClellan, The Madison County Record and its attorneys, McDermott Will & Emery LLP (MWE), the Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) and the Chamber of Commerce of the United States.
Cueto's suit stems from a column by McClellan, "Amiel Cueto has a gift, or maybe he doesn't," related to a suit Cueto had filed against the Record in St. Clair County. That suit was later dismissed and the dismissal has been appealed by Cueto.
Cueto is seeking compensatory damages in excess of $75,000 and punitive damages in excess of the same amount for each of the 11 counts in his complaint.
He claims that, in connection with publication of the McClellan column, the seven defendants invaded his privacy by casting him in a false light, intimidated St. Clair County judges and witnesses and conspired to intimidate judges.
Monday's hearing addressed motions to dismiss made by all the defendants.
Joseph Martineau, attorney for Lee Enterprises and McClellan, argued that Cueto's suit did not name the right defendant – in this case, the Post-Dispatch LLC.
More fundamentally, Martineau contended the suit should be dismissed for several reasons. He cited the innocent construction rule as protecting the opinions expressed in McClellan's column. He said the columnist and paper were protected by the First Amendment, Illinois common law and the state Citizens' Participation Act.
"There is in this country a First Amendment that guarantees free expression," Martineau said. He added that he was "astonished" that Cueto could claim a newspaper column constitutes an unlawful threat to a witness by itself.
"Simply being in a newspaper isn't criminal intimidation," Martineau said.
Martineau and the other attorneys present all argued that Cueto could not state a claim for damages based on the alleged violation of the criminal conspiracy statute, and that Cueto had not alleged any acts in his complaint to show a conspiracy took place.
"If I see a judge in the hall and I talk to him, it doesn't mean I'm engaged in a criminal conspiracy," Martineau added.
Cueto countered that Crowder must, under the law, take his pleadings at face value and that he had met his burden to continue the suit. Cueto argued that McClellan's words were defamatory and that he was entitled to his day in court.
He argued that he personally had witnessed attorneys from the defendants and McClellan gathering together at the St. Clair County Courthouse.
"What they couldn't accomplish in court, what they couldn't accomplish in the law, they accomplished by threats," Cueto said Monday. "I'm just pleading what I saw and the reasonable inferences I drew from that."
Steven Pflaum, representing the Record, ILR, the Chamber of Commerce and MWE told Crowder that his clients were asking for a dismissal of Cueto's suit on the same grounds as those argued by Martineau, as well as for lack of any basis to hold his clients secondarily liable for claims arising out of the McClellan column.
"Frankly, it's harassment," Pflaum said of the suit.
Crowder said she would take all of the dismissal motions under advisement and render orders as quickly as possible.
Cueto is representing himself.
Martineau appeared at the hearing on behalf of Lee Enterprises and McClellan.
Pflaum and Russell Scott appeared on behalf of the Record, Chamber of Commerce, ILR and MWE.
Gary Meadows and Elizabeth Gere appeared on behalf of Executive Risk Indemnity.
The case is Madison case number 08-L-775.