Former Chicago Bears star in IL handbag libel lawsuit
A case in the Illinois Supreme Court centers on whether a former Super Bowl MVP has the right to know the identity of a woman who accuses him of sexual harassment, which would have led to the termination of contracts between its energy services company and a subsidiary of Exelon Corporation.
Richard Dent, Professional Football Hall of Fame member and Chicago Bears defensive lineman from 1983 to 1993, is the owner of RLD Resources LLC, a company specializing in energy products and services, according to its website. RLD had several energy supply and marketing contracts with Constellation NewEnergy Inc. and related companies, according to court documents. Constellation is a subsidiary of Exelon.
But Dent’s lawyers, led by in-house lawyer Paul G. Neilan, alleged that those contracts were terminated on October 1, 2018, after Dent was briefed in a September 14, 2018 meeting with two of the lawyers for Constellation that he was the subject of a sexual harassment complaint by a Constellation employee.
A letter sent by Constellation to Dent’s lawyers in December 2018 concluded that “although Mr. Dent denied the allegations, his denials were not credible and the investigation concluded that the reports accurately described behaviors that were, at a minimum, in violation of the Exelon code. conduct of business, completely outside of socially acceptable and demeaning standards of behavior for Constellation employees.
Now the court is being asked to decide whether the employee – identified in Dent’s petition as Person A – and a witness to separate Dent’s “drunk and disorderly” conduct at a different location from where the alleged harassment occurred – identified as Person B – are protected by the judicial principle of “qualified privilege”, allowing their anonymity in a sexual harassment case.
Dent’s lawyers argued that he had a right to know the identity and location of Person A and Person B through the pre-prosecution process because their statements were false and defamatory. The individuals, not Constellation, are the publishers of the defamatory allegations, his lawyers argued.
Constellation lawyers argued that employees should remain anonymous because their statements were made as part of a confidential and privileged investigation into sexual harassment in the workplace.
Specifically, Person A alleged that Dent told her during a Constellation sponsored golf outing in 2016 that she had “a butt like a sister.” Then, during a pre-golf evening organized at Hangar Aquarium in July 2018, Dent allegedly fiddled with the woman, according to court documents.
Person B, the witness cited by Constellation, reportedly noted that he observed Dent was “drunk and messy” as he picked up golf equipment at the nearby Marriott Hotel in Chicago during an event related to the out of 2018, but separate from where the alleged harassment occurred.
Identity of Peron C
Dent’s motion also seeks the identity of Person C, whom his legal team has identified in the court file as an “investigator.” review harassment complaints on behalf of Constellation.
In their own court documents, attorneys for Constellation noted that investigators were in fact Grace Speights and Theos McKinney, the two attorneys who spoke to Dent at the September 14, 2018 meeting.
Constellation lawyers argued that because Dent now knows the identity of Person C, he can sue them for libel and later search for the identity of Person A and B.
But Dent’s team said McKinney and Speights did not identify themselves as Dent’s investigators during the meeting, and Person C’s identity was not known when the court petition was brought forward. filed, which means it is outside the scope of what the court should consider.
“In order to use an employee’s qualified privilege to report workplace harassment to the employer, Constellation had to have more facts than they disclosed at the September 2018 meeting, and more facts than they did. ‘she had only stated in the December 2018 letter, ”Neilan mentioned.
The origins of the case date back to 2019
The case began in 2019 in Cook County Circuit Court, which sided with Constellation. But the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with Dent, which led Constellation’s legal team to bring the challenge to the Supreme Court.
Constellation attorney J. Timothy Eaton, of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP, urged the court in oral argument on Wednesday September 22 to overturn the appeals court ruling, saying the “chilling effect” would be “Obvious” if Constellation was forced to disclose the identity of the alleged victim and the witness.
“This tribunal must balance a potential defamation plaintiff’s right to redress against the danger of setting the standard for proving an abuse of privilege so low that it effectively cools the victim’s right to speak confidentially and exposes the victim of retaliation, ”Eaton said.
The fact that Dent denies the allegations was not sufficient to overcome qualified privilege, as Dent did not provide any facts to show that the allegations were made “in bad faith,” Eaton said.
But Judge Rita B. Garman asked if someone in Dent’s position could ever “obtain enough information to overcome” qualified privilege if the identity of the accuser remained unknown.
Fear of retaliation
Eaton reiterated that the court must balance Dent’s rights to redress “with the rights of the victim who, in an interview, assumed confidentiality.”
“Studies have shown that in the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace, less than 14% of victims of sexual harassment in the workplace report their harassers,” he said. “Most of them don’t report because they fear retaliation and because privacy concerns are part of the reason they don’t come forward to complain.”
More than 30 organizations, including ACLU Illinois, Employed Women and the National Center for Women’s Rights, filed a brief in support of Constellation’s argument.
Dent’s team argued in court records that because the contracts were at will, Constellation could have protected the identities of People A, B and C by terminating the contracts without mention of sexual harassment. The failure to do so means that “Constellation’s actions dismiss its own warning” regarding fears of retaliation, according to a court file.
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