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The President of a municipality tried a novel approach to blunting the activities of a local painting contractor – submitting a “request for investigation” to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) – normally a path to pursue grievances against a licensed attorney. The contractor appeared to be organizing other local contractors in an effort to launch a class action lawsuit against the municipality.  However, the contents of the ARDC complaint almost came back to haunt the municipality.  Here is an overview.

Overview:  In 2015, the defendant – the President of a local municipality -- submitted a “Request for Investigation” to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC), alleging that the plaintiff, a painting contractor, had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. In the ARDC complaint, the defendant asserted that the plaintiff was providing legal advice and offering legal services to other contractors at Village administrative hearings regarding their defenses against citations issued or arrests made by the Village’s police department for operating unmarked work vehicles. The defendant alleged that the plaintiff had told other contractors that he would represent them in a planned class action against the Village. The defendant further asserted that she believed that the plaintiff’s envisioned class-action lawsuit concerned purported illegal activities by the Village’s police department.

In October 2015, she noted the plaintiff had staged and videotaped a traffic stop related to the operation of an unmarked contractor work vehicle in the Village. Plaintiff then posted the recording on a Facebook page that he originated. On this page, plaintiff encouraged readers to contact him directly for legal advice and used the page to harass Village employees, elected officials, and their families, and threaten them with litigation. The defendant also stated that the plaintiff set up a GoFundMe account to solicit donations for his planned class-action lawsuit against the Village. The plaintiff had contributed to local news segments and newspaper articles concerning the Village’s issuance of citations for unmarked work vehicles. The plaintiff became angry after one of his employees received such a citation. The plaintiff also frequently attended Village board of trustees meetings during which he called for the resignation of certain Village officials.

Following an investigation, the ARDC determined that there was insufficient evidence to find that the plaintiff ever held himself out as an attorney or handled any legal matters. Plaintiff then filed a lawsuit against the defendant claiming malicious prosecution and alleging that the defendant had reported him to the ARDC without probable cause or justification. Plaintiff also filed an amended complaint that added a claim of libel, based on statements the defendant made in her filing with the ARDC.  Following a hearing, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s malicious-prosecution claim. Regarding the plaintiff’s libel claim, the trial court granted in part and denied in part the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The trial court found that the defendant’s statements alleging that the plaintiff had engaged in the unauthorized practice of law were subject to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 775 immunity. However, the statements that were not related to the unauthorized practice of law were not protected by immunity.

Outcome: On appeal to the Second District Appellate Court of Illinois, the court was asked to answer the following question: “Are statements unrelated to the unauthorized practice of law in a complaint submitted to the ARDC immunized under Supreme Court Rule 775?” The court answered in the affirmative.  Because the statements in the ARDC complaint gained immunity, the plaintiff’s claim for libel had no legal basis for continuing.