“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.)

Summary judgment for the Dallas Morning News reversed on libel claim

DMN BuildingIn a detailed analysis, the Fifth Court reversed a summary judgment for the Dallas Morning News and columnist Steve Blow as to this 2010 column in the case of Tatum v. Dallas Morning News, No. 05-14-01017-CV (Dec. 30, 2015).  In a nutshell, the plaintiffs took issue with Blow’s suggestion that they were untruthful about the circumstances of their son’s suicide.  The Court found genuine issues of material fact about whether the column was about the Tatums (it did not expressly name them); whether it was defamatory, substantially true, or privileged; whether it solely involved opinion; and whether Blow acted with malice.  The News’s own coverage of the opinion appears here.

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

Organist’s Establishment Clause Argument Fails to Invalidate Unemployment Benefits Exemption

Mr. Spicer, an organist formerly employed  by the Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church, challenged on constitutional grounds the statutory exemption of unemployment benefits for ex-employees of religious organizations.  The Court of Appeals rejected Spicer’s arguments, holding that the religious exemptions in the Texas unemployment laws do not violate Establishment Clause because, among other things, these laws demonstrate neither sponsorship of nor hostility towards religion.

Spicer v. Texas Workforce Comm’n

Free Exercise Clause Bars Pastor’s Employment Claim

After Charles Reese was terminated two years into his five-year term as pastor for the Faith Cumberland Presbyterian Church, he brought suit against his former employer for breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress seeking, among other things, lost wages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees.  Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent holding in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC, 132, S. Ct. 694 (2012), the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the suit on First Amendment grounds.  Quoting Hosanna-Tabor, the Court found that if it were to “second guess the Church’s decision to terminate Reese it would deprive the Church of its right to shape its own faith and mission by imposing an unwanted minister.”

Reese v. Gen. Assembly

For Your Information, the Court of Appeals Has Roundly Rejected Prior Restraint

Jay Nanda and his brother, Atul, ended up in a dispute over their jointly-owned company, Dibon Solutions. An arbitrator awarded ownership of the company to Atul and ordered him to pay Jay in excess of $500,000. After the arbitration award, Jay began to call Dibon’s customers and its bank, claiming that Dibon was engaged in all kinds of misconduct, including money laundering, human trafficking, and forging documents. Dibon sued Jay, asking the trial court for a temporary injunction to stop Jay from spreading his allegations any further. The trial court denied the temporary injunction, and Dibon filed an interlocutory appeal. The court of appeals affirmed, holding that the testimony supported Jay’s assertion that the statements were true. Without any false or misleading statements at issue, Dibon could not meet its burden of establishing an exception to the First Amendment’s prohibition of prior restraint. The court went on to hold that an injunction could not be sustained on Dibon’s alternative theory of tortious interference because, apart from the fact that Jay admitted sending the disparaging information in an email, there was no evidence that he had otherwise taken an active part in persuading Dibon’s customer to breach its contract. Accordingly, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Dibon’s request for a temporary injunction.

Dibon Solutions, Inc. v. Nanda, No. 05-12-01112-CV

Cops & Editors

In a defamation case, the court of appeals has affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants.  The case was brought by a group of Dallas police officers who claimed they had been defamed by a former cop, D Magazine, and the magazine’s writer following the publication of a story alleging the issuance of fraudulent misdemeanor citations.  In the process of overruling the plaintiffs’ complaint that the trial court had abused its discretion by failing to grant a further continuance of the summary judgment hearing, the court of appeals endorsed the San Antonio court’s formulation of “a qualified First Amendment privilege against compelled disclosure of confidential information possessed by a journalist.” The court also rejected the plaintiff’s objections to the writer’s affidavit, holding that his testimony of relying on anonymous sources was sufficient to establish a good faith basis for publishing the allegedly defamatory claims, which the plaintiffs had failed to rebut.  Finally, the court of appeals held that the defendants had submitted adequate evidence to prove their lack of actual malice against the plaintiffs, and that the plaintiff had failed to raise a fact issue to contradict that evidence.

Nelson v. Pagan, No. 05-09-01380-CV