7th Circuit affirms verdict against law professor in defamation dispute

A law school professor suing for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress could not convince the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday that the jury was wrong to reject her claims.

Katherine Black (Litvak) and her husband, Bernard Black, both professors at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, initiated a lawsuit against a relative after the two were excluded from a $3 million estate left by Bernard’s mother upon her death.

The Blacks expected to inherit about one‐third of that estate, but Bernard’s mother cut them out of her will and left nearly the entire estate to Bernard’s homeless and mentally ill sister, Joanne, who lived in Denver. Bernard then appointed himself as Joanne’s conservator and worked to redirect much of her inheritance to himself and Katherine.

At the same time, Bernard’s cousin, Cherie Wrigley, contacted private investigator Esaun Pinto to locate Joanne and have her relocated to New York. After Joanne relocated, Bernard sought to become guardian of Joanne’s property while Wrigley fought to become her guardian.

Meanwhile, Joanne’s guardian ad litem in Denver discovered that Bernard had diverted much of Joanne’s inheritance to himself. She then hired Pamela Kerr to investigate Bernard and Pinto, who had been withdrawing funds from Joanne’s account.

A Denver probate court eventually suspended Bernard as Joanne’s conservator and ultimately resolved the dispute against Bernard after finding that he committed civil theft by stealing $1.5 million from Joanne. The court issued a $4.5 million judgment, which was affirmed on appeal.

Later on, Katherine submitted a letter to the New York court in the guardianship proceedings, which was on Northwestern University letterhead. Wrigley subsequently called the deans of Northwestern’s law and business schools to complain that Katherine had used Northwestern letterhead to make a false statement to the court.

Kerr also called the law school dean and Wrigley attached a letter Kerr had drafted to an ethics complaint submitted to Northwestern. Wrigley’s complaint asserted that Katherine was “using [Northwestern’s] letterhead to slander people and fight a personal case,” among other things.

Katherine sued Wrigley and Kerr in federal district court in Chicago, claiming both defamed her and that Wrigley intentionally inflicted emotional distress on Katherine. But the trial didn’t go as planned for Katherine, who on the last day attempted to present her own closing argument and was denied by the judge. Additionally, Katherine’s lead counsel requested a continuance that was eventually granted after he expressed being “physically ill” and was “not emotionally ready to do this right now.”

Regardless, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Wrigley and Kerr, prompting Katherine to appeal pro se.

Arguing on appeal that the district court erred in several ways, Katherine first posed that it had excluded numerous pieces of evidence that should have been admitted. She further argued that the district court erred in allowing improper statements by defense counsel in closing argument, by declining to give a jury instruction on one of her defamation claims, and by denying Katherine’s request to give her own closing argument, or hire new counsel to do so, after her lead lawyer suffered a breakdown after the close of evidence.

As to the exclusion of evidence, the 7th Circuit concluded that none of the district court’s evidentiary decisions warranted a new trial, finding no cause to overturn the jury’s verdict in Katherine Black v. Cherie Wrigley, 20-2656.

Turning to Katherine’s argument regarding allegedly improper statements that defense counsel made during closing arguments, the appellate panel agreed with the district court that attorneys have leeway in their closing arguments to suggest inferences based on evidence. It therefore found no abuse of discretion in overruling Katherine’s objection that defense counsel “lied” when he argued in closing that she “invented another wrongdoer to deflect attention from Bernard Black. That’s poor Mr. Esaun Pinto.”

Noting that Katherine had good reason to expect an instruction on her defamation claim against Wrigley, the 7th Circuit observed that it was possible “that the district court committed plain error by omitting an instruction on that claim and by omitting the claim from the verdict form.” However, it concluded that the jury probably would have ruled for Wrigley even if properly instructed.

“Most tellingly, the jury found that Kerr did not commit defamation in making the exact same statements that formed the basis of the defamation claim against Wrigley. Katherine does not persuasively explain how or why the same jury probably would have come to a diametrically opposite conclusion on the defamation claim against Wrigley,” Circuit Judge Michael Kanne wrote for the 7th Circuit. “… In sum, Katherine falls short of showing that any error the court may have committed in its instructions affected her substantial rights.”

Finally, the 7th Circuit found that Katherine’s argument as to her counsel’s incapacity and her request to present closing arguments herself was “wholly without merit.”

“Moreover, even assuming an attorney’s incapacity could ever justify a new trial in a civil case, Katherine fails to mention that she had two lawyers. We have previously explained that ‘[t]he physical incapacity of one of the two lawyers representing plaintiff does not entitle plaintiff to relief … in the absence of a strong showing that other counsel could not have acted for h[er] under the circumstances then existing,’” it concluded.

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