The Business Litigation Blog

Retired Carpentry Union Member Appeals Defamation Decision

Several of our posts have focused on defamation. Today we are going to focus on a recent appeal of a decision in a dispute between two members of a carpentry union. The plaintiff, Joseph Pompa, appealed an order from the Kane County circuit court that dismissed his count against the defendant, Paul Swanson.

Some background on Pompa’s allegations:

Pompa was a member of the Carpenters Union 839 for thirty years. During this time, he was elected five times to the office of financial secretary and held the position for a total of twenty years. He also spent several years working as the union’s business manager.

The defendant, Paul Swanson, was part of the union at the same time. Despite the fact that Pompa’s peers have given him very positive reviews, the defendant expressed feelings of dislike towards the plaintiff and even told other union members about his feelings towards the plaintiff.

In 2009, in an attempt to sabotage the election of union candidates supported by the plaintiff, the defendant distributed a flyer to members of the union. The flyer said that while the average salary for the position of financial secretary was based on 25-30 hours of work each month, Pompa’s salary was based on 80 hours a week. However, according to Pompa, he did contribute 80 hours per month to the role.   

The plaintiff decided to retire in 2010. Typically, union members would show their appreciation to retirees by giving them large retirement gifts. Previous gifts had ranged from weekend trips to Lake Geneva all the way to monetary gifts of $30,000.00.

Members of the union met to discuss the plaintiff’s retirement gift. The defendant was present at the meeting. He spoke out against the plaintiff saying that he was unsatisfactory in his performance of his job. The executive board voted not to give him a retirement gift.

When Pompa amended his complaint, he alleged that Swanson’s statement about him performing his job unsatisfactorily was false and that the allegation about his salary being based on 80 hours as opposed to 25-30 was also false. According to Pompa, the statements were false because:

1 Pompa was elected financial secretary five times with overwhelming success

2 Pompa actually did work 80 hours every month

3 Pompa had been praised by many members of the union, including Swanson at one point

Pompa believed that the statements by the defendant to the executive board were allegedly defamatory because both the allegations of unsatisfactory performance and being overpaid insinuated a lack of integrity. According to Pompa, Swanson made these allegations with the complete knowledge of their falsehood and with malicious intent.

Swanson filed a motion to dismiss Pompa’s amended complaint. The motion was granted on both counts, and so Pompa filed an appeal.

The appeal raised questions as to whether the claim was sufficiently stated for defamation by alleging Swanson told the board that Pompa was overpaid and performed his job as a union employee unsatisfactorily as well as the likelihood of bringing a cause of action for intentional interference with regard to the defamatory statements that allegedly caused the board to deny giving him a retirement gift.

The ruling was based in part on whether or not the statements made by Swanson were capable of innocent construction. According to the judge, the plaintiff stated his opinion in order to address the narrow issue of the retirement gift. His opinions were expressed in front of a small group and he was given permission to speak on the matter. The court found that the remarks made in the board meeting were meant to persuade board members as opposed to being meant to defame the plaintiff, so they dismissed the count.

Even if an allegedly defamatory statement cannot be characterized by innocent construction, it may be protected as an opinion. According to the court, the statement made by Swanson that Pompa “performed his job unsatisfactorily” was considered a form of opinion. There was no evidence that the statement would have been interpreted as an assertion of fact. Thus, the court dismissed the count.

The other statement made by Swanson that referred to his being overpaid was also considered by the court to be an opinion. The operative word the judges used to prove that the statement was an opinion was overpaid. The subjectivity of the meaning of the word was the basis for the court’s ruling that the statement was a nonactionable opinion.

As this post has demonstrated, there are many intricacies involved in proving defamation. While the defendant Swanson clearly was not a fan of the plaintiff Pompa, the statements he made were not enough to prove that he wanted to defame the plaintiff; thus the appellate court denied the amended complaint.

The Patterson Law Firm is experienced on both sides when it comes to defamation cases and we have advised clients across the country on how to handle various situations related to defamation or product disparagement. To learn more about our firm visit pattersonlawfirm.com or call us at 312.223.1699.

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