anti-SLAPP happy court dismisses claims for defamation arising from judicial proceeding

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In Watson v. Hardman, the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s refusal to dismiss defamation claims under the Texas anti-SLAPP statute.

The facts were tragic. A car accident took the lives of a married couple, who both had children from prior marriages. The Hardmans, relatives of the husband, set up “go fund me” pages to benefit the surviving children. Watson, the father of one of the surviving children, filed a Rule 202 petition to investigate claims that the Hardmans had stolen some of the donations. The Hardmans then sued Watson for defamation for statements in the 202 petition and alleged rumors in the community suggesting the Hardmans stole donations. The trial court denied an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss, which asserted that any alleged statements were protected as an exercise of the right to petition or right to free speech.

The Dallas Court of Appeals reversed, holding that allegations in the 202 Petition were the “exercise of the right to petition” because they were “a communication in or pertaining to … a judicial proceeding,” which are subject to an absolute privilege. The Court specifically rejected arguments that the statements in the judicial proceeding had to concern anything of public interest.

In addition, allegations outside of the 202 Petition were also protected “exercise of the right of free speech” because they related to community well-being, specifically the well-being of people who made donations and of the intended beneficiaries. The Dallas Court of Appeals remanded to the trial court for consideration of a motion by the Hardmans to conduct additional discovery relating to other statements outside of the 202 Petition pursuant to § 27.006(b). So the Hardmans may yet have the opportunity to discover and respond with a prima facie case for defamation showing when, where, and what was said, the defamatory nature of the statements, and how they damaged the Hardmans.  

Watson v. Hardman

First Rule 91a Opinion From the Dallas Court of Appeals

In what appears to be only the third opinion in the state reviewing a motion to dismiss under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 91a, the Dallas Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial court’s order that granted in part and denied in part a motion to dismiss on the pleadings. Similar to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), Rule 91a allows a party to move to dismiss a cause of action “on the grounds that it has no basis in law or fact,” based solely on the claimant’s pleadings. In this case, the plaintiffs sued the City of Dallas after emergency services failed to respond to a 911 call reporting their son’s drug overdose. The plaintiffs attempted to plead their way around governmental immunity by claiming the City had negligently used or misused the 911 system’s telephone and computer systems. The Court affirmed dismissal of negligence claims that the City had failed to properly respond to the 911 call, but also affirmed the denial of the motion as to claims that the equipment itself had failed or malfunctioned.

City of Dallas v. Sanchez, No. 05-13-01651-CV