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Edgewater man prevails over condo developer

From the Chicago Tribune:
Supreme Court upholds immunity granted in Illinois Citizen Participation Act
Condo owner prevails against developers suing for defamation as court delivers broad interpretation of law’s scope

In a clash of an individual’s free speech rights versus the right of companies to bring grievances to court, the Illinois Supreme Court sided with the little guy.

John Walsh spoke out about problems with the developers of his Edgewater condo building at a public meeting in his Chicago alderman’s office in 2007. After the meeting, a reporter talked to Walsh, who is president of the building’s condo association, and quoted him in a story about condo horror stories. The developers later sued the 58-year-old accountant for defamation.

The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that Walsh’s speech was shielded from liability under 2007 legislation that protects a citizen’s constitutional rights to participate in government.

It’s a significant ruling because the court broadly interpreted what actions fall within the scope of immunity, said lawyers involved in the case. It’s the first time the court has analyzed immunity granted in the Illinois Citizen Participation Act.

“The court basically said not only can you go to the city council and complain, but you also can go to the press,” said Damon Dunn, an attorney who represented the Sun-Times Media Group Inc. and Pioneer Newspapers Inc., who were co-defendants in the defamation claim.

Speaking out at a public hearing is as American as baseball and apple pie. But lawsuits have been used to silence opposition and discourage civic activism. They are often referred to as SLAPP suits, short for strategic lawsuits against public participation.

A growing backlash to these suits has prompted about two dozen states, including Illinois, to regulate them.

Terrence Sheahan, of Freeborn & Peters, one of Walsh’s attorneys, said it will be interesting to see how Illinois trial courts interpret the boundaries of immunity in future cases based on the court’s opinion. Some say the Illinois law already tramples on the rights of people and companies to protect themselves from defamation.

The scope of protection is important because the Illinois law awards parties that prevail in their immunity requests reasonable costs and legal fees.

In the Walsh case, the Supreme Court sent the suit back to the trial court to enter an order requiring the developers to pay his legal fees and costs incurred in bringing the immunity action. The costs will total “a couple hundred thousand dollars,” said Michael Franz, another attorney for Walsh.

Walsh bought a unit in the 22-story building at 6030 N. Sheridan Road in 2005. Two limited liability companies, Sixty Thirty LLC and Wright Management LLC, and two individuals, W. Andrew Wright and his son James Wright, were involved in converting the apartment building into condos, according to court papers.

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