Satkar Hospitality, Inc. v. Fox Television Holdings

Decision Date10 September 2014
Docket NumberNo. 11–3572.,11–3572.
Citation767 F.3d 701
PartiesSATKAR HOSPITALITY, INC., Sharad Dani, and Harish Dani, Plaintiffs–Appellants, v. FOX TELEVISION HOLDINGS, et al., Defendants–Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Jonathan Lubin, R. Tamara de Silva, Chicago, IL, for Plaontiff–Appellant.

Steven P. Mandell, Mandell Menkes, LLC, Thomas L. Brejcha, Jr., Peter Breen, Thomas More Society, Chicago, IL, for DefendantAppellee.

Before FLAUM, SYKES, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.

SYKES, Circuit Judge.

Sharad Dani and his son Harish Dani own and operate a hotel in Schaumburg, Illinois, through their company Satkar Hospitality, Inc. In this suit they allege that a political blog and a local television station defamed them by reporting a possible link between their political donations and a successful property-tax appeal. The Danis and their company were among those mentioned in blog posts and a television news report as having made a large donation to a local politician and later won a property-tax appeal. In response to this reporting, the Cook County Board of Review revoked Satkar's property-tax reduction and opened an inquiry into the allegations.

Satkar and the Danis (collectively, Satkar) sued the Board, its members and staff, the blog, the television station, and several reporters, asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of their constitutional rights and state-law claims for defamation and false light. The district court dismissed the § 1983 claims against the Board and the public officials, and we affirmed that decision in an earlier opinion. See Capra v. Cook Cnty. Bd. of Review, 733 F.3d 705 (7th Cir.2013).

In a separate order, the district court also dismissed the state-law claims against the media defendants, applying the Illinois Anti–SLAPP statute. Because the § 1983 claims were then still pending, the judge entered final judgment under Rule 54(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to permit a separate appeal of the SLAPP issue. A week later, with the appellate clock already ticking, the judge orally invited Satkar to ask for a Rule 54(b) judgment on the SLAPP dismissal, apparently forgetting that he had already entered final judgment. Satkar did nothing to correct the court's misapprehension; it did not seek clarification, remind the judge that judgment was already entered, or file a notice of appeal. Instead, after the deadline to appeal expired, Satkar moved for an extension of time, claiming that the judge's comment created confusion. The judge accepted this explanation and granted the extension, apparently relying on the defunct “unique circumstances” doctrine. This appeal followed.

The Supreme Court has disavowed the unique-circumstances doctrine, and Satkar has not otherwise demonstrated excusable neglect for missing the appeal deadline. The appeal is untimely and must be dismissed for lack of appellate jurisdiction.

I. Background

The case was dismissed on the pleadings, so we take the following facts from Satkar's complaint, accepting them as true. Satkar owns and operates a Wingate by Wyndham hotel in Schaumburg. In 2007 Satkar appealed its property-tax assessment to the Cook County Board of Review, which has jurisdiction over appeals of property-tax assessments rendered by the Cook County Assessor's Office. The appeal was successful. The Board lowered the valuation of the hotel, saving Satkar more than $40,000 in property taxes.

Two years later, allegations surfaced that Illinois State Representative Paul Froehlich was engineering successful Board appeals for his constituents in return for large campaign contributions. The Illinois Review, a conservative blog, and the Chicago Fox TV affiliate WFLD ran stories identifying Satkar as one of these constituents. They reported that Satkar gave Froehlich free hotel rooms for his campaign workers and later won its tax appeal. The reports were sourced to a disgruntled former employee of Representative Froehlich. Although the blog and television reports did not use the word “bribery,” the implication was clear enough. Satkar denies any involvement in the alleged bribery scheme.

The Board of Review responded to the media reports by requiring Satkar to appear and answer questions regarding its relationship with Froehlich. The Board specifically invited WFLD to this closed-door hearing and proceeded to “pander” to the Fox affiliate. The Board then “arbitrarily rescinded” its earlier decision to reduce Satkar's property appraisal, which increased Satkar's property-tax assessments for tax years 20072009. Moreover, as a result of the reports on the Illinois Review blog and WFLD television, Satkar suffered reputational damage and lost business. Finally, the Board initiated an internal review of the pay-for-play allegations, and the State's Attorney opened an investigation.

Satkar filed suit in federal court against the Board of Review, its members and staff, the Illinois Review, WFLD, and several reporters and producers employed by the media defendants, asserting claims under § 1983 against the public defendants and state-law claims for defamation and false light against the media defendants. This appeal involves only the claims against the media defendants. As we've noted, the § 1983 claims were resolved in our earlier opinion in Capra v. Cook County Board of Review, 733 F.3d 705. In a nutshell, we affirmed the district court's dismissal of the claims against the Board of Review and the public officials, although we adjusted the judgment in certain respects to reflect that the dismissal was without prejudice. See id. at 718.

Central to Satkar's case against the media defendants is the Illinois Citizens' Participation Act, or Anti–SLAPP Act,” 735 ILL. COMP. STAT. 110, a law aimed at curbing so-called “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation,” id. § 110/5. SLAPPs are lawsuits deployed to deter citizens from exercising their political rights by burdening them with expensive litigation. The point of a strategic lawsuit is not necessarily to win it, but rather to impose litigation costs. Under the normal rules of civil procedure, even a meritless lawsuit can survive to the summary-judgment stage, requiring expensive discovery and motion practice. The point of anti-SLAPP laws is to allow defendants in strategic lawsuits to win early dismissal before substantial litigation costs are incurred.

More specifically, the Illinois Anti–SLAPP Act applies to

any motion to dispose of a claim in a judicial proceeding on the grounds that the claim is based on, relates to, or is in response to any act or acts of the moving party in furtherance of the moving party's rights of petition, speech, association, or to otherwise participate in government.

Id. § 110/15. The Act extends immunity to [a]cts in furtherance of” these rights, “regardless of intent or purpose, except when not genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome.” Id. Claims to which the Act applies must be dismissed unless the plaintiff produces “clear and convincing evidencethat the acts of the moving party are not immunized from, or are not in furtherance of acts immunized from, liability by this Act.” Id. § 110/20(c).

The media defendants moved to dismiss Satkar's complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), invoking the immunity provided by the Act. The district court denied the Rule 12(b)(6) motion but indicated that the defendants could reassert their Anti–SLAPP Act defense in a procedurally proper post-answer motion. They answered and moved for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c).

By written decision dated September 21, 2011, the court granted the motion. The judge first rejected Satkar's constitutional challenges to the Act, holding that the void-for-vagueness doctrine does not apply in this context and the Act does not violate the right to privacy or the right to access the courts. The judge then held that the Act barred Satkar's claims against the Illinois Review and WFLD defendants. The defamation and false-light claims, the judge reasoned, were based on the media defendants' news reports, which were directed at the public and addressed the subject of political corruption, a matter of public concern. As such, the defendants' actions were in furtherance of their right to free speech and enjoyed immunity under the Act. Finally, Satkar had not shown that the conduct of the media defendants was not genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, which might have taken the claims outside the immunity provided by the Act.

The judge thus dismissed all claims against the media defendants with prejudice and awarded attorney's fees as provided in the Act. Although the § 1983 claims against the Board and the public officials were still pending, the judge found no just reason for delay and directed the clerk to enter judgment for the media defendants under Rule 54(b). That same day—September 21, 2011—the court entered final judgment in favor of the Illinois Review, WFLD, and their reporters and producers. The judge's Rule 54(b) findings and entry of judgment are clearly reflected in the case docket, in the judge's written orders, and in a written Rule 54(b) final judgment.

This action started the appeal time clock. Satkar's deadline to file a notice of appeal was October 21, 2011–30 days after the entry of judgment. SeeFed. R.App. P. 4(a)(1)(A). At a status hearing on September 27, however, the judge asked the parties “whether anybody is going to ask me for a 54(b) finding” on the Anti–SLAPP Act issue, apparently forgetting that he had already made a Rule 54(b) finding and entered final judgment for the media defendants. The judge signaled that he “would probably give” the parties a Rule 54(b) finding, but told them not to “wait too long” to ask for it. Satkar did not remind the judge that he had already entered a Rule 54(b) judgment. The judge then scheduled the next status conference for November...

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