“Rhetorical Flourish” ≠ Defamation

card flourishThe Fifth Court affirmed summary judgment for D Magazine in a defamation suit by a former volunteer, finding that most of the statements at issue were unactionable opinions or accurate statements of fact. Summarizing the underlying principles of free speech, the opinion reminds that a “rhetorical flourish” that is “merely unflattering, abusive, annoying, irksome, or embarrassing, or that only hurts the plaintiff’s feelings, is not actionable.” The court lacked appellate jurisdiction over part of a related appeal by the Dallas Symphony, since it involved the denial of a summary judgment about a tortious interference claim rather then free speech issues, although the Court was able to address the civil conspiracy claim against the Symphony. D Magazine Partners LP v. Reyes, No. 05-16-00294-CV (April 18, 2017) (mem. op.)

Libel Strikes Back.

imperial walkersPlaintiffs sued for libel, based on four articles in the Korea Town News (N.B. – Dallas has the largest Korean-American community in Texas). Unfortunately, the TCPA “anti-SLAPP” statute applied, because the articles dealt with “the proposed sale of an office building . . . for use as a community center, which would be purchased “in part with funds raised by the public.” And the statements at issue were not actionable, as they “the majority of these statements concern the value of the building . . . the appraisal value of the building, the purchase price, and its market value.” Accordingly, the Fifth Court affirmed the dismissal of Plaintiffs’ claim — and the resulting award of attorneys fees under the TCPA. Mansik & Young Plaza LLC v. K-Town Management LLC, No. 05-15-00353-CV (Aug. 15, 2016) (mem. op.)

Implied Accusation of Welfare Fraud Supports Libel Claim

In 2013, D Magazine published an article that labeled Janay Bender Rosenthal as “The Park Cities Welfare Queen,” based on her receipt of benefits under the Supplemental Nutriotional Assistance Program. Rosenthal sued for libel, and the trial court denied the magazine’s anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss. The Court of Appeals affirmed, over the dissent of Justice Brown. The majority held that Rosenthal had established a prima facie case for defamation because the “gist” of the article was an accusation of welfare fraud, which the opinion backs up with a colorful history of the term “welfare queen.” Justice Brown disagreed, arguing that the article was a satirical critique of a welfare system “that allows a woman with a criminal history of theft, living in a million-dollar home, and taking advantage of the highly rated school system of a wealthy enclave, to collect food stamps.”

D Magazine Partners, L.P. v. Rosenthal (majority), No. 05-12-00951-CV

D Magazine Partners, L.P. v. Rosenthal (dissent)

The Knives Came Out in the Race for Kaufman County Commissioner

A Republican primary battle for the office of Kaufman County commissioner (precinct 2) resulted in a defamation claim against the challenger’s media consultant. It seems that two days before the election, a website went up that strongly implied the incumbent, Ray Clark, had intervened in multiple child molestation cases brought against his “nephew,” Stoney Adams. resulting in the charges being dismissed. A series of mailed-out fliers made similar allegations. In reality, Adams was only distantly related through a series of marriages on Clark’s wife’s side of the family, and Clark averred that he had never done anything to support or assist Adams in any criminal case. Based on those facts, the trial court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss under the TCPA, finding that Clark had established a prima facie case for each element of his defamation claims. The Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting the defendants’ argument that the statements were protected as “rhetorical hyperbole.” Similarly, the statements were not protected as non-actionable opinions just because they were attributed to Adams’ ex-wife, but were instead capable of being defamatory because they implied knowledge that Clark really had intervened in Adams’ child molestation cases. As for actual malice, the Court of Appeals credited Clark’s argument that the defendants had “carefully attempted to distance themselves” from the defamatory statements, which in turn demonstrated that they “entertained serious doubts” about them.

Campbell v. Clark, No. 05-14-01056-CV

Yes, Your Online Reviews Are Protected by the TCPA

A nasty Zillow review of a real estate agent prompted a defamation lawsuit, which these days pretty much inevitably leads to a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens’ Participation Act. In this instance, the agent had listed the seller’s house as “temporarily off market” instead of “active.” The Collin County trial court denied the seller’s motion to dismiss, but the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed. The seller’s claim that the agent had listed the house as being off market for “over 100 days” was incorrect, but the Court held that the falsity of that statement was immaterial because the agent had actually listed the property that was for 64 days instead. The plaintiffs also failed to establish that listing the house as off market was in accordance with the seller’s instructions, as her complaint that she “did not want her property shown” was not the equivalent of asking it to be listed as “temporarily off market.” Finally, the plaintiffs could not base their defamation case on the seller’s statement that the agent was “incompetent, mentally unstable, or raging from rejection” because those were non-actionable statements of opinion. The Court therefore rendered judgment for the defendant and remanded for a determination of her costs and recoverable attorney fees.

Ruder v. Jordan, No. 05-14-01265-CV

Rational Interpretation Negates Malice in TCPA Appeal

Former GOP Senate candidate Chris Mapp sued the Dallas Morning News for defamation after it published an editorial stating Mapp had told the editorial board “that ranchers should be allowed to shoot on sight anyone illegally crossing the border on their land, referring to such people as ‘wetbacks,’ and called the president a ‘socialist son of a bitch.'” Mapp claimed that the “shoot on sight” comment had been taken out of context because he had actually said ranchers should be permitted to shoot when they were in “fear for their life” or in defense of property, the same as anybody else. The News filed a motion to dismiss under the TCPA, but the 30-day statutory period after the hearing passed without a ruling by the trial court. That caused the motion to be overruled by operation of law, and the newspaper perfected an interlocutory appeal. The trial court then issued an order granting the motion to dismiss, albeit outside the prescribed time period.

This raised two questions for the Dallas Court of Appeals: What was the effect of the late-issued dismissal order, and should the case have been dismissed on the merits in any event? As to the first question, the Court held that the untimely dismissal order was a nullity. On the merits, the Court held that Mapp (who was a public figure) had not met his prima facie burden of showing that the newspaper had published the allegedly defamatory statements with constitutional malice. Paraphrasing or deliberately altering another person’s words does not establish actual malice unless there is evidence the defendant misinterpreted the remarks on purpose or in circumstances so improbable that the mistake could only have been recklessly. The Court concluded that the newspaper’s paraphrase of the statements Mapp had made in his tape-recorded interview was a rational interpretation of what he had said, and Mapp had not submitted any evidence to contradict the reporter’s affidavit explaining his subjective intent. The Court of Appeals therefore concluded that the trial court had erred by allowing the motion to dismiss to be overruled by operation of law, rendered judgment that Mapp’s case be dismised, and remanded to the trial court for a determination of the DMN’s costs, fees, and other recoverable expenses.

The Dallas Morning News, Inc. v. Mapp, No. 05-14-00848-CV

The TCPA Is a Powerful Tool, But Not All-Powerful

The Texas Citizens Participation Act is becoming a powerful tool for disposing of certain types of lawsuits at an early stage of litigation, but an opinion from the Dallas Court of Appeals recognizes two important limits to the TCPA’s scope. Travis Coleman sued his former employer, ExxonMobil Pipeline, and two former supervisors for defamation and related claims. Coleman contended that the defendants had lied about his alleged failure to measure the level of fluid in a chemical holding tank, which led to his dismissal. The trial court denied Exxon’s motion to dismiss under the TCPA, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court of Appeals first relied on the Texas Supreme Court’s recent holding in Lippincott v. Whisenhunt (4/25/15) to reject Coleman’s argument that the TCPA did not apply because the speech was purely private. Nevertheless, the Court held that the allegedly defamatory statements did not involve a “matter of public concern” because their contents related to Coleman’s private job performance, not health, safety, the environment, or Exxon’s economic interests. The fact that the potential consequences of Coleman’s alleged failure to check the tank included health, safety, environmental, and economic concerns was not enough to transform the statements into a matter of public concern. The Court also rejected Exxon’s argument that the TCPA applied on free association grounds, holding that communications made in the context of free association had to involve some sort of public or citizens’ participation to fall under the TCPA.

ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. v. Coleman, No. 05-14-00188-CV

The Opinion Was Not Issued on a Free CD-ROM

Last summer, the Dallas Court of Appeals rendered judgment in favor of television reporter Brett Shipp on a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act. The plaintiff in that case, Dr. Richard Malouf, is back in the Court of Appeals with another pair of defamation cases involving the TCPA. This time, Malouf and his wife sued AOL, Inc. and its reporter for publishing an allegedly defamatory story concerning a backyard water park being built while Malouf was “charged” with millions of dollars in Medicaid fraud. Malouf claimed that was defamatory because he had never been “charged” with fraud in any criminal proceeding.

Because the statements related to matters of public concern — namely, allegations of defrauding taxpayers and the provision of dental services to the public — the TCPA shifted the burden to the Maloufs to establish a prima facie case for each element of the defamation claim by clear and specific evidence. The Court of Appeals held that they had failed to do so. Because the defendants were acting as members of the media, the Maloufs had to prove that the statements were actually false. The Court of Appeals held that the words “charged” and “stolen’ did not improperly suggest criminal charges or activity when Malouf had been sued under civil law for the alleged conduct several times. Therefore, a person of ordinary intelligence would not perceive the article’s claims to be more damaging to Malouf’s reputation merely because the article omitted to distinguish between civil and criminal proceedings. The Court of Appeals reversed and rendered in favor of AOL, affirmed dismissal as to the reporter, and remanded to the trial court for determination of AOL’s attorney fees and expenses.

AOL, Inc. v. Malouf, No. 05-13-01637-CV

Nonsuit Does Not Negate TCPA Motion to Dismiss

The Texas Citizens’ Participation Act continues to be a powerful tool in certain types of commercial cases. In this instance, the publisher of Petroleum News Bakken managed to obtain and affirm a judgment of dismissal and attorney fees in a business disparagement and tortious interference case. The dispute arose out of a newspaper article that stated no records could be found for wells that Breitling Oil & Gas claimed to have drilled in North Dakota. The publisher moved to dismiss under the TCPA, which shifted the burden to the burden to the plaintiff to come forward with prima facie evidence of each element of its claims. Breitling responded with a notice of nonsuit, but that didn’t stop the trial court from moving forward with the hearing and awarding the defendant $88,444.58 in attorney fees and expenses. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the nonsuit did not moot the pending motion to dismiss because the defendant had already made a “pending claim for affirmative relief” through its request for attorney fees and sanctions. The Court also rejected Breitling’s argument that the attorney fees should have been tried to a jury, noting that the record did not show that Breitling ever objected to the trial court making findings on the reasonableness of the fees awarded.

Breitling Oil & Gas Corp. v. Petroleum Newspapers of Alaska, LLC, No. 05-14-00299-CV

Take a Break From the Keyboard Before You Give Yourself a Libel Suit

A trio of worked-up horse breeders managed to Facebook-rant their way into a colorful defamation lawsuit, which the Dallas Court of Appeals has now permitted to proceed as to one of the two counterclaim defendants. Appellants Jane McCurley Backes and Tracy Johns sued Appellee Karen Misko for tortious interference.  Misko counterclaimed against Johns for libel and against Backes for conspiracy to libel. The opinion quotes extensively from the women’s online postings, the pettiness of which will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the Internet. Misko eventually unfriended Backes and Johns, the latter of whom then posted a thinly-disguised query whether anyone had ever known someone with Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Misko’s daughter had long been a victim of health issues, and other posters saw Johns’ post as an attack on Misko. That post served as the basis for Misko’s libel claim. The trial court denied Johns and Backes’ motions to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act.

The Court of Appeals held that Johns and Backes both met their initial burden of demonstrating that the claims against them were based on their rights to free speech and association, respectively. That shifted the burden to Misko to come forward with clear and specific evidence establishing a prima facie case of each element of her claims. The Court of Appeals held that Misko had indeed met that burden with respect to her libel claim against Johns, but not as to the conspiracy claim against Backes. Because Misko had not come forward with clear and specific evidence of a meeting of the minds between Backes and Johns, the Court rendered judgment dismissing the civil conspiracy claim and remanded the case to the trial court for consideration of an award of attorney fees and costs.

Backes v. Misko, No 05-14-0566-CV