Catalano v. Pechous

Decision Date17 October 1980
Docket Number51931,Nos. 51912,s. 51912
Citation50 Ill.Dec. 242,83 Ill.2d 146,419 N.E.2d 350
Parties, 50 Ill.Dec. 242, 6 Media L. Rep. 2511 Joseph G. CATALANO et al., Appellants, v. Robert C. PECHOUS et al. (Robert C. Pechous, Appellant; Mark Fineman et al., Appellees).
CourtIllinois Supreme Court

James E. Gierach and Robert M. Winter, of Gierach, Stambulis & Schussler, Ltd., Oak Lawn (Gerald W. Shea, Berwyn, of counsel), for appellants.

Edward V. Hanrahan, Chicago, for appellees.

WARD, Justice:

The plaintiffs, who are seven of the eight aldermen that comprise the city council of Berwyn, filed a complaint in the circuit court of Cook County against the defendants, Robert C. Pechous, the city clerk, Mark Fineman, a reporter for Suburban Week, a weekly supplement to the Chicago Sun-Times, and Field Enterprises, Inc. (Field), the publisher of the Sun-Times. The action sought damages for a defamatory statement allegedly made by Pechous at a council meeting and repeated several months later to Fineman, who quoted it in an article which appeared in Suburban Week.

Motions for summary judgment were filed by Pechous and by Fineman and Field. In each case the plaintiffs filed a reply and a cross-motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the defendants' motions and denied those of the plaintiffs. On appeal the Appellate Court for the First District reversed the circuit court's granting of Pechous' motion for summary judgment and its denial of the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and affirmed the award of summary judgment in favor of Fineman and Field (69 Ill.App.3d 797, 25 Ill.Dec. 838, 387 N.E.2d 714). We granted petitions for leave to appeal filed by the plaintiffs and by Pechous. 73 Ill.2d R. 315.

This litigation had its origin in a decision by the city council of Berwyn to abandon its practice of having garbage collected by municipal employees and to contract for its collection by private scavenger concerns. The city authorized the solicitation of bids and later awarded a contract to one of the bidders. The particulars, documented by materials which were before the circuit court on the motions for summary judgment, are set out in the opinion of the appellate court, and no more than a summary is required here.

At a meeting on December 19, 1975, the counsel voted to authorize the city comptroller to draw up specifications and advertise for bids for private scavenger service for the year 1976. Although no copy of the invitation to bid appears in the record, a letter of January 5, 1976, from the mayor to the council states that the invitations specified January 12 as the deadline for the submission of bids. The minutes of the December 19 meeting report that Pechous, as city clerk, was permitted to submit a communication addressed to the members of the city council which, according to the minutes, "raised substantive questions concerning the contemplated shift by the city from municipal refuse collection to private scavenger service." The minutes do not disclose the contents of this communication, and no copy of it appears in the record.

Three scavenger companies submitted bids before the January 12 date, and at a council meeting on December 29 these bids were opened, and the bid of one company, Clearing Disposal, Inc., which was the lowest bidder, was accepted. A fourth company, SCA Services, which had planned to submit a bid by January 12, had not done so by the time of the December 29 meeting. The mayor vetoed the award of the contract to Clearing, but the council overrode the veto at a meeting held on January 12, 1976. At that meeting the council also voted to return unopened a bid which had been received from SCA Services.

It was the meeting of December 29 at which Pechous was alleged to have initially made his defamatory statement. Counts I and II of the complaint, which were directed against Pechous, alleged:

"1. That on December 29, 1975, at a meeting of the Berwyn City Council, The Defendant Pechous falsely and maliciously, with intent to injure the Plaintiffs' good names, uttered to third persons and caused to be published in Cook County Illinois the following false, defamatory and malicious statement, in connection with the awarding of a contract for garbage collection to Clearing Disposal, Inc. by the said Berwyn City Council which is composed of the Plaintiff Alderpersons:

'Two hundred forty pieces of silver changed hands thirty for each alderman.'

2. That the Defendant Pechous subsequently uttered the following false, malicious, and defamatory statement concerning the Plaintiffs to the Defendant Fineman, regarding the awarding of said contract, with intent to injure the plaintiffs' good names, and thereby caused said statement to be published in an article in the Chicago Sun-Times a newspaper printed and circulated in Cook County Illinois:

'Something smells in this contract more than garbage * * * I said at the council meeting when the contract was first awarded that I think 240 pieces of silver changed hands 30 for each alderman. * * * There was just something suspicious about the way that contract was approved * * * I've said all along that if it were ever discovered how that contract was really approved, there'd be some vacant chairs in the city council * * * There are just too many unanswered questions in the contract. The whole thing was railroaded through, and we can't help but think there was some strong motivation behind it.'

4. That the Defendant Pechous intended the persons who heard or read the above statements to believe that the Plaintiffs were bribed to vote to award the said contract to Clearing Disposal, Inc., and to believe that the Plaintiffs cast their votes solely for personal gain in violation of their fiduciary duty to the citizens of Berwyn and of their oaths of office and in violation of the law; and that the above statements were so understood by the persons who heard and read said statements."

Subsequent paragraphs of the complaint alleged that these statements were false, and that Pechous uttered them with knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity.

Count III, directed against Fineman and Field, alleged that in publishing the quoted statements these defendants did so knowing that the statements were false or with reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. The article by Fineman is set out in its entirety as the appendix to this opinion. It was published in the May 12-13, 1976, edition of Suburban Week.

Pechous filed an answer denying each allegation of counts I and II. Fineman and Field filed an answer in which they admitted the publication of the article, but denied the other allegations of count III.

The only discovery had in this case was conducted by the plaintiffs, and it was limited to written interrogatories and notices to produce served on Pechous and Fineman. No admissions of fact were requested, and no depositions were taken by either side. The materials available for the court's consideration of the motions for summary judgment, other than the pleadings, consisted of answers to the interrogatories, documents produced, and affidavits be Fineman, Pechous, and four of the plaintiffs which were made in support of the motions for summary judgment.

The pleadings left unresolved several issues of fact: whether Pechous, at the meeting of December 29, had made the statement alleged in paragraph 1 of the complaint; whether he had made the statement to Fineman alleged in paragraph 2; whether these statements were false; and whether Pechous had made them with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity. The propriety of disposing of the action upon summary judgment thus turned on whether the additional information before the court eliminated all genuine issues of material fact, as all of the parties represented in their motions.

In addition to renewing the arguments which he had made in the circuit and the appellate courts that he was entitled to summary judgment, Pechous contends in this court that summary judgment for the plaintiffs was improper since there remained in the case a controversy over whether he made the statement before the council alleged in paragraph 1 of the complaint.

As the appellate court noted in a supplemental opinion, Pechous advanced the same claim in his petition for rehearing. He also sought leave to file an affidavit by Thomas P. Hardy, a reporter for another newspaper, and a copy of an article, written by Hardy about the meeting of January 12, 1976, which he had attended. According to this article, Pechous had made a speech at this meeting questioning the legality of the award to Clearing in which he was quoted as referring to 240 pieces of silver, but in somewhat different language from that alleged in the complaint with regard to the December 29 meeting. He was reported to have said, "240 pieces of silver cemented the relationship between Clearing and the aldermen, destroying the tap roots of democracy." Hardy's affidavit did not state that he had attended the meeting of December 29, 1975. In denying leave to file the affidavit and the article, the appellate court held that Pechous was improperly seeking to introduce new evidence for the first time on appeal (69 Ill.App.3d 797, 813, 25 Ill.Dec. 838, 387 N.E.2d 714.) This ruling of the court was plainly correct.

Elimination of the affidavit does not wholly dispose of Pechous' contention that summary judgment was improper, however, for in his answer Pechous denied having made the alleged statement regarding 240 pieces of silver at the December 29 council meeting. The complaint was not verified, and the plaintiffs filed no affidavit attesting to the truth of the allegation. It should be added that the minutes of the meeting recite that Pechous was excused on account of illness shortly after the meeting began and before the matter...

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