Orland Park, IL. (ECWd) -
Bridget Bittman, the Orland Park Public Library's public information coordinator, filed what we believe to be a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) lawsuit against critics of the OPPL's history of allowing child pornography to be accessed and other illegal things to happen in the library without calling the police or taking measures to ensure the library was a safe place for children. You can read more on the backstory of this here.
Additionally, a comprehensive FOIA investigation into the OPPL's finances revealed reckless and abusive spending, including lavish meals for board members that served no public benefit, and a gobsmacking fortune wasted on the legal services of Klein Thorpe Jenkins to fight FOIA production and attempt to justify violations of the Illinois Open Meetings Act and FOIA statutes. You can read more on this here.
The latest round of legal filings in the case were put before the court and they are a doozy.
Megan Fox and Kevin DuJan are being sued by Bittman in what I believe is a SLAPP action meant to scare them off as the principal critics of the Library's dangerous behavior and reckless spending. During a public meeting last August, OPPL Board Member Diane Jennings encouraged Bittman to file this lawsuit. At a training event held by the American Library Association (ALA) in December 2013, defamation lawsuits were allegedly discussed as a tactic to be used by libraries against their critics.
After research into identified donors, it appears that a lot of those donors to Bittman's GoFundMe page (where she continues to solicit money to fund her litigation) are members of the ALA or employees of public libraries, it makes is easy to argue that Bittman's SLAPP suit could be a precedent for other ALA members to use against critics in the future (in the very unlikely event that the court does not dismiss this SLAPP suit with prejudice).
These most recent legal filings were instructive for many reasons. You can read them below.
Dan Kleinman, the nation's leading expert on dangers to children in public libraries, was also sued by Bittman…despite living in New Jersey and never having set foot in the state of Illinois. Kleinman's motion to dismiss is based on jurisdictional issues, where his attorney argues that Bittman did not file her suit against him properly.
Kleinman also argues that Bittman does not state any damages suffered and also does not specify exactly what she claims Kleinman did wrong in his criticism of Bittman and her behavior. Kleinman has asked the court to dismiss Bittman's counts against him with prejudice, meaning that she could not try to later file another lawsuit against him for the same things in the future.
Fox and DuJan are represented by Kirkland & Ellis, which is the top law firm in Chicago. The arguments made on their behalf by their attorneys are largely that Bittman stated no damages and that her lawyers (from the Mudd law firm) have tried to apply inapplicable cases to support her counts against Fox and DuJan.
For instance, Bittman's attorneys have tried to claim that Fox and DuJan should be charged with federal computer hacking…because Bittman does not like a satirical Facebook page that DuJan runs called "Sassy Plants". DuJan posts photographs he takes of plants and other things he finds amusing on Sassy Plants. Bittman claimed in her lawsuit (and on her GoFundMe page) that she believes Sassy Plants impersonates her, though she's never provided any proof of that and can't point to a single instance of her name being used by DuJan on Sassy Plants.
Bittman also claims that Sassy Plants somehow impersonates a business that Bittman claims to run, though there is no record with the Secretary of State of Illinois' office of Bittman owning any business. How can someone be sued for allegedly impersonating a business that does not even exist, especially when the page in question is as clearly satirical as something called Sassy Plants?
It is deplorable that Bittman has tried to invoke federal criminal computer hacking laws in her SLAPP suit against Fox and DuJan. As explained in the filings, those computer hacking laws are meant for situations where an employee at a company breaks into an employer's computer to steal data or destroy data in revenge for an employee-employer grievance. Those laws are not meant to be used by a miffed public employee who doesn't like someone or a Facebook page he runs where he posts pictures of flowers and gardens.
Also noted in today's filings is the fact that Bittman has delayed the court from hearing these motions to dismiss on several occasions. She's asked for a stream of extensions and the court seemed to have enough of her games when it rebuked her last month for attempting to exceed the page count limit for her last filing.
One hallmark of a SLAPP suit is that the plaintiffs in these suits do not intend for the cases to get to the fact-finding stage, called discovery. SLAPP suits are filed as a nuisance and burden on the defendants, who often don't have the financial resources to hire attorneys to defend them. By filing delay after delay, SLAPP plaintiffs (who are public officials with access to resources to fund this litigation or who solicit funds from other public officials or employees) seem to bleed their targets dry or stall matters so that the defendants will want to just make the SLAPP suit go away.
In Illinois, when the court determines a lawsuit is a SLAPP suit, the plaintiff can be forced to pay the defendants' legal costs and also may be subject to triple those costs in damages. This is meant to deter other public employees from using SLAPP suits as weapons to scare away critics of public bodies.
One concern raised in this matter with Bittman is the fact that in May 2014 the OPPL passed a policy change where it promised to indemnify its employees in legal actions. This policy change means that board members such as Diane Jennings and staff members like Bridget Bittman who could potentially have judgments brought against them could foist those judgments onto the public body and make taxpayers pay for them. That indemnification policy is here: http://www.orlandparklibrary.org/documents/policies/A19IndemnificationPolicy.htm
The OPPL Board should take action to preclude Bittman from claiming indemnification by immediately stating that this suit is not based on her work related activities, lest the taxpayer be forced to pay.
We'll keep you posted on further developments in this case.