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

Blog Post Protected by TCPA, But Pro Bono Defense Means No Attorney Fees

Attorney Baltasar Cruz sued for libel against the operators of the Burnt Orange Report, which published a statement that Cruz had been “thrown out three times, finally by the police, of an Elizabeth Edwards book signing event in Dallas several years ago.” The defendants moved to dismiss on anti-SLAPP grounds. The trial court granted the motion and awarded the defendants their attorney fees. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the case, but reversed on the award of attorney fees.

Cruz raised a remarkable 121 issues for appellate review, taking up 25 pages of non-word count briefing. The Court of Appeals did not find that lack of conciseness persuasive — see Tex. R. App. P. 38.1(f) — nor did it care for the absence of headings, divisions, or groupings in the brief’s 69 pages of argument. The Court also noted that the brief lacked legal authority and failed to identify the evidentiary objections Cruz was seeking to vindicate on appeal. As a result, the Court deemed many of Cruz’s “multifarious” issues to be waived. On the merits of the anti-SLAPP motion, the Court quickly disposed of Cruz’s claim that the statement was not a “matter of public concern” because he was a candidate for judicial office at the time the blog post was published and a candidate’s character is relevant to his qualification for public office. Cruz also could not establish that the statement was published with malice just because the defendants had not been present at the book signing incident, while the defendants averred they had relied on several sources for their account.

However, the Court of Appeals vacated an award of $158,521.50 in attorney fees to one group of defendants because they had not actually “incurred” those fees. Since their attorneys had taken the case pro bono, the clients were not personally responsible for payment of the claimed fees. However, the Court sustained a separate fee award of $31,783.75 to another defendant, holding that there was evidence showing that party was personally liable for those fees.

Cruz v. Van Sickle, No. 05-13000191-CV

Finality of a Dismissal Order Under the TCPA

A trial court that dismisses a lawsuit after a motion made under the Texas Citizens Participation Act “shall award to the moving party . . . reasonable attorney’s fees . . . incurred in defending against the legal action as justice and equity may require.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.009(a)(1). In this case, the trial court signed its order on March 6 granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, then followed it up on April 14 with an order awarding defendant $15,616 in attorney fees and sanctioning the plaintiff another $15,000. The plaintiff claimed that the April 14 award was a nullity because the March 6 order was a final judgment. The Court of Appeals disagreed, first order did not purport to dispose of the defendant’s claim for fees and costs, and both the court and the parties recognized that there had not been a final judgment because they continued to litigate the additional issues. The Court of Appeals went on to rule on several other issues, concluding among other things that the plaintiff had waived any complaint about the trial court’s failure to timely hold a hearing on the motion to dismiss by failing to object in the trial court; that the statements attributed to the defendant were not capable of being defamatory; and that the plaintiff had not pointed to any evidence of damages to support its tortious interference claim. The judgment was therefore affirmed.

American Heritage Capital LP v. Gonzalez, No. 05-12-0892-CV

Bankruptcy Is Not Defamatory Per Se

Television reporter Brett Shipp was sued for defamation by Dr. Richard Malouf, founder of the All Smiles Dental Center. Shipp broadcast a story on allegations of Medicaid fraud involving Malouf, and closed by reporting that Malouf “has yet to comment on the allegations but filed for bankruptcy and is in the process of divesting his once impressive empire.” Malouf alleged that statement was defamatory because it was All Smiles Dental Center that filed for bankruptcy, not Malouf personally. Shipp filed a plea to the jurisdiction and a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act. The trial court denied both the plea and the motion, and Shipp took the matters up on interlocutory review.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the plea to the jurisdiction, but reversed and rendered based on on the TCPA. The plea to the jurisdiction claimed that the county court at law was without jurisdiction because it would deny Shipp the right to a 12-person jury. The Court quickly disposed of that issue, citing its own case law establishing that the size of the available jury does not negate subject matter jurisdiction that has otherwise been properly conferred on a court. As to the TCPA, the Court held that Shipp had met his initial burden of showing that the lawsuit arose out of his exercise of the right to free speech because the subject matter of his report as a whole — not just the statement about the bankruptcy filing — was made in connection with a matter of public concern. That shifted the burden to Malouf to come forward with a prima facie case, based on “clear and specific evidence,” for each element of his defamation claim. Malouf argued that a false accusation of personal bankruptcy was defamation per se, which would have given rise to a presumption of damages. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that it was not defamation per se because it did not “touch Malouf in a way that is harmful to one engaged in the profession of dentistry.” Without any other clear and specific evidence of damages, the Court held that the motion to dismiss under the TCPA should have been granted.

Shipp v. Malouf, No. 05-13-01080-CV

Free Speech on Angie’s List

The Texas Citizens Participation Act continues to be a fruitful source of appellate activity. In this instance, the Court of Appeals has reversed the trial court’s order denying a motion to dismiss in a case arising out of a bad review on Angie’s List. Barbara Young hired Perennial Properties to construct an outdoor living space at her home, but Young claimed that Perennial failed to perform its work as required. McKinney Lumber Company then filed a lien against Young’s property for $9,779 in lumber that Perennial had failed to pay for. After the lumber company sued everyone involved, Young wrote up her experience in an online review, giving Perennial an overall grade of “F” and describing Perennial’s owners as incompetent crooks. Those owners then intervened in the lawsuit in order to sue Young and her attorney for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Court of Appeals first held that Young had met her initial burden of showing that the online review was an exercise of her right to free speech because it was a communication made to the public in connection with a good, product, or service. That brought it within the scope of the TCPA and shifted the burden to Perennial’s owners to establish by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each element of their claims. That they failed to do, according to the Court of Appeals. The defamation claim failed because the owners had not provided any evidence that the allegedly false statements were defamatory (as opposed to non-actionable opinions) or that Young had been negligent in making them. The intentional infliction of emotional distress claim failed because that cause of action is only a “gap-filler” tort, and there were no different or distinguishing facts from the defamation claim to permit it to proceed separately. The Court of Appeals therefore dismissed both claims and remanded the case for further proceedings under the TCPA, presumably to consider an award of attorney fees to Young.

Young v. Krantz, No. 05-13-00853-CV

T. Boone Pickens Is Not a Public Figure, Except Sometimes

If “blogger” sounds like an unusual pastime for the son of an oil-and-gas billionaire, this colorful case may be the one for you. T. Boone Pickens and several of his children sued Michael Pickens. Michael is T. Boone’s son and a recovering drug addict who has chronicled his life and his recovery in his blog, “5 Days in Connecticut” (which is now closed to uninvited readers). The blog has not been very kind to the other members of Michael’s family, which led them to sue for invasion of privacy, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Michael moved to dismiss based on the Texas Citizens Participation Act, our version of the “anti-SLAPP” laws that have been enacted around the country in recent years. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that Michael’s statements about his life and his family did not qualify for protection under the TCPA because they were not “made in connection with a matter of public concern.”  Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.001(3).

Although the TCPA defines “public concern” to include statements relating to “a public figure,” the Court drew a distinction between general-purpose public figures and limited-purpose public figures. To qualify as a matter of public concern under the TCPA, the speech must either relate to a general-purpose public figure (whose entire life is followed by the public) or a limited-purpose public figure (who is only followed at times, or on certain topics). If it is a limited-purpose public figure, then the defendant’s speech only qualifies as a matter of public concern if the statements relate to the subject matter that makes the person a limited-purpose public figure. Here, the Court concluded that Michael’s evidence was insufficient to show that T. Boone was a public figure for all purposes, and that he was only a public figure for the limited purpose of his opinions and activities in the energy industry. Because Michael’s statements related to T. Boone’s family life, and not the energy industry, they did not qualify as matter of public interest under the TCPA, and therefore Michael’s motion to dismiss had to be denied.

Pickens v. Cordia, No. 05-13-00780-CV

College Track Coach Clears Summary Judgment Hurdle on Slander Claims

Southwestern Christian College fired its track coach after he allowed two ineligible athletes to run in a meet.  Later, when the college’s track program got audited, the athletic director chose not to respond and accepted a ban from that year’s national championship, because the penalty for running ineligible athletes would have been worse than the penalty for failing to respond to an audit request.  The athletic director then told the track team that the reason they could not compete in the national championship meet was because the coach ran ineligible athletes.  The coach disputed that explanation.  He claimed that the audit and resulting ban were due to the athletic director’s failure to submit certain forms.

The coach sued the college, the athletic director, and the college’s president, alleging, among other things, that the athletic director and college president had made slanderous statements that tarnished his reputation in the track and field community and prevented him from getting another job.  The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of the coach’s claims.  The Court of Appeals, however, reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the coach’s slander claims against the college and the athletic director, finding that the coach had raised a material fact issue as to the truth of the athletic director’s statements to the track team.

Porter v. Southwestern Christian College, No. 05-12-01737-CV

Absolute Privilege in a Quasi-Judicial Administrative Process

The Court of Appeals has affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a libel and business disparagement case.  The case arises out of statements made by OAC Senior Living in an administrative waiver proceeding initiated by a competitor, Senior Care Resources. The allegedly defamatory statements were made to the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, a state agency designated to administer and monitor human services programs, including Medicaid. If that sounds like the sort of thing that would be absolutely privileged under defamation law, the Court of Appeals agrees with you. Although DADS is not a court, it was exercising quasi-judicial power in determining whether to grant Senior Care’s requested waiver. The Court’s opinion provides a lengthy analysis of when it is proper for a court to conclude, as a matter of law, that such a proceeding qualifies as quasi-judicial for purposes of the absolute privilege defense.

Senior Care Resources, Inc. v. OAC Senior Living, LLC, No. 05-12-00495-CV

Court Upholds Determination Not to Disclose Name of Child Abuse Informant

Based on a report from a confidential informant, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services investigated Robert Mason for allegations that he hit his ten-year-old daughter three times.  The investigation determined that, based on the available evidence, the alleged abuse did not occur.  But Mason suspected that the informant was David Glickman, the Rabbi of a congregation with which Mason associated, so he sued Glickman for defamation.  Because the TDFPS had redacted its report (as required by Texas law) to conceal the name of the informant, Mason could not establish that Glickman was the one who made the allegedly defamatory statement.  Under a Texas Family Code provision, however, Mason moved the trial court to order disclosure of the unredacted report, arguing that disclosure was essential to the administration of justice.  The trial court denied the motion and granted Glickman’s no-evidence motion for summary judgment.  The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that disclosure of the report was not essential to the administration of justice.  Further, the court rejected Mason’s stated goal of discouraging reports of suspected child abuse since the statute exists to encourage child abuse reporting, regardless of whether the allegations are ultimately confirmed.

Mason v. Glickman

Discovery Denied Because Plaintiff Failed to Show “Good Cause” Under TCPA

The Court of Appeals has granted mandamus relief to the defendants in the defamation lawsuit brought by the teenaged son of baseball player Torii Hunter. The suit arises out of sexual assault charges that a grand jury eventually no-billed. In the subsequent defamation case, the defendants moved to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, which requires the plaintiff in such a case to come forward with prima facie evidence of each element of the case at an early stage of the litigation. The plaintiff responded with an emergency motion seeking leave to take the depositions of one of the alleged victims and her mother.  The trial court granted leave, but the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff’s briefing had not stated any “good cause” for the discovery, as required by the TCPA, and at the hearing on the motion had only argued that the depositions were necessary “in order to defend the motion to dismiss.” Without any specific showing of good cause in the record, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court had abused its discretion in allowing the depositions and conditionally granted mandamus relief.

In re D.C., No. 05-13-00944-CV