Judge Won’t Put Out Flame War Over Vodka

     CHICAGO (CN) – An attorney who represented a restaurateur in a dispute over a quinoa-based vodka may sue a former opposing party who allegedly posted defamatory comments online accusing her of displaying “little regard for the truth” and saying she was her former client’s “partner in crime.”
     French restaurateur Jean-Denis Courtin and Christine Cooney, a spirits specialist, were business partners in Top Shelf Imports, which manufactures and distributes Qino One Vodka, a quinoa-based vodka.
     But in 2008, a business dispute led Courtin to sue Cooney and her husband, Daniel Cooney. Courtin hired Kelly Cartwright to represent him.
     In January 2009, the Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly newspaper, published an article called “Seeds of Change” about the genesis of Qino One. It also published the article on its website with a section for readers’ comments.
     On Feb. 16, 2009, Daniel Cooney allegedly posted a comment online claiming that he was the owner of Qino One Vodka and describing the allegations of the ongoing lawsuit. He also wrote that Courtin had “conned a young socially-conscious freelance attorney into bleeding his partner further, via endless, costly legal delays and ongoing Federal Court litigation,” the ruling states.
     Cartwright responded on March 10, 2009, and accused Daniel Cooney of acting “with malicious intent to cause harm to Mr. Courtin’s reputation and business ventures in a desperate attempt to persuade Mr. Courtin to drop his lawsuit against Cooney.”
     On March 16, 2009, Daniel Cooney wrote: “I am glad to see Ms. Kelly Cartwright has decided to join the conversation. After all, she has played such a major role in advancing Mr. Courtin’s fraud scheme; one might even say (metaphorically?), ‘they are partners in crime.’ … She must certainly believe there is something big waiting for her at the end of the rainbow if she can succeed in neutralizing us, the main obstacle to the scam. When I asked her if it wasn’t important to know if her client was telling the truth before wasting so many people’s time, her response was, ‘the truth is irrelevant in this case,'” according to the ruling.
     He continued: “Mr. Courtin hired Kelly Cartwright to intimidate us. … While I respect Ms. Kelly Cartwright’s freedom to practice being a lawyer, I resent the fact that she has displayed such little regard for the truth and for the destructive effects caused by her lack of due diligence. I hope that when the honorable Judge [Elaine] Bucklo finally rules on this case, she will weigh in on the significantly influential role Ms. Cartwright has played in manipulating and prolonging the effects of Mr. Courtin’s fraudulent, malicious and destructive actions,” the ruling states.
     After the lawsuit between Courtin and Cooney settled in September 2009, Cartwright sued Daniel Cooney for defamation and tortious interference. Cartwright accused Daniel Cooney of filing a complaint against her with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee (ARDC), said he submitted a memo to U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo accusing her of “making misrepresentations” during settlement negotiations, and of lying to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in seeking a patent for the quinoa vodka formula.
     U.S. District Judge Robert Dow Jr. denied Daniel Cooney’s motion to dismiss, finding that his statements are not protected by the Illinois Citizen Participation Act (ICPA), Illinois’ anti-SLAPP statute.
     “In his motion, Defendant argues that his statements to the ARDC and Judge Bucklo are protected by the ICPA because they were made to government officials and sought favorable governmental action by those officials,” Dow wrote.
     However, based on the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision in Sandholm v. Kuecker, “even if Defendant was attempting to procure a favorable result with the ARDC or Judge Bucklo, as long as Plaintiff’s objective in bringing suit was not to stifle Defendant’s political expression but sought redress for damages incurred by Defendant’s alleged defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress, the ICPA does not protect Defendant’s speech,” the ruling states.
     “When the statements to the ARDC and Judge Bucklo are viewed in the context of the dealings between the parties – specifically, given that the statements followed Defendant’s statements published in the Chicago Reader in March 2009, which clearly were not aimed at procuring favorable government action and are not the subject of the current motion – Defendant’s argument that the statements were genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action falls flat,” Dow wrote.

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