STRATMAN v. BRENT - Slander: "Mentally disturbed" is not an innocent phrase - Release: Check the print that isn't at all fine

This article was published in Bar Briefs, the monthly journal of the Kane County Bar Association in November, 1997

In a previous article, I discussed a recent Second District opinion regarding the application of statutory and common-law immunity to statements made to a prospective law enforcement employer by a chief of police. In this article, I will explain the Appellate Court's interpretation of the "innocent construction" rule of Illinois slander law as applied to an accusation that a person is "mentally disturbed." In addition, the Court construed the language contained in an authorization to release information to a prospective employer.

Defamation law in Illinois used to allow defendants to avoid liability by asserting that their allegedly insulting words could be interpreted in an innocent fashion. This doctrine permitted an evasion of responsibility for some pretty unsavory remarks because the courts bent over backwards to grant immunity to any arguable construction of allegedly slanderous statements. However, more recently, Illinois courts adopted the "modified innocent construction rule", which requires that the statements at issue be interpreted in context with reference to the meaning they were intended to convey to the listener.

Illinois reviewing courts have generally found former employer's remarks to be "innocent" for slander purposes when they refer in general terms to a former employee's work habits or performance. In other words, as long as the statements do not generally convey the idea that the plaintiff is unfit for certain employment in the future, a slander suit will be dismissed.

In the present case, former police officer Joseph Stratman alleged that his superior, former police chief Robert Brent, had slandered him by making certain remarks to agents of the federal government. The agents were interviewing Brent pursuant to Stratman's applications for law enforcement positions with the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Those remarks were summarized in the complaint as follows:

(a) Stratman had been involved as an Aurora police officer in an incident in which he fatally shot a burglary suspect in 1979;

(b) Stratman's behavior became unpredictable after the shooting and he became incapable of handling stress;

(c) Officers of the Aurora Police Department gave Stratman the nickname "Code Red", thereby referring to a mentally disturbed person;

(d) Brent had been monitoring Stratman's behavior with an eye toward finding just cause to fire him and was relieved when Stratman resigned his position;

(e) Brent would not rehire Stratman and he would make strenuous efforts to prevent his return, including subjecting him to every possible psychological screening;

(f) The police department might mutiny if Stratman were rehired and other officers would not work with him; and

(g) Brent would not recommend Stratman for employment as a federal law enforcement officer.

In the present case, the Appellate Court felt that these types of remarks could not be construed innocently as a matter of law. Rather than simply engaging in a type of name-calling, Brent was contending that Stratman was generally unable to perform the duties of a law enforcement officer in future positions of that nature. Since these remarks were made in the context of a police agency request for information about a prospective law enforcement officer, labelling Stratman "mentally disturbed" and "incapable of handling stress" could only be construed in a disparaging fashion.

On a final issue, Brent claimed that a release given to the DEA by Stratman absolved him of all responsibility for his statements to the feds. However, the Court noted that exculpatory release agreements are not favored and are strictly construed against the benefiting party. Here, even a casual reading of the document noted that it only authorized the disclosure of information in the department's personnel file. No mention at all was made of authorizing statements outside that limited record of events. Therefore, Brent exceeded the scope of the authorization form by commenting on matters unrelated to Stratman's file.

Believe it or not, other jurisdictions hold that releases provided for employment information constitute a complete bar to defamation actions. The Appellate Court rejected these authorities in ruling that the case must return to circuit court for further proceedings.

The defense petition for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court is currently pending in Springfield.

(The first article pertaining to this case appeared in last month's Bar Briefs and discussed issues of statutory and common-law immunity.)

Larry Wechter represented Joseph Stratman in the appeal to the Second District. He is a former assistant state's attorney in Kane County and has an active criminal and civil appellate practice.