tjb-seal-144Back in late 2015, I wrote a five-part series on the Expanding Scope of the TCPA or Texas’ Anti-SLAPP law. The Supreme Court of Texas confirmed our analysis last week with its decision in the ExxonMobil v. Coleman confirming that Anti-SLAPP protections can and do apply to internal corporate communications when there is a defamation claim.

ANTI-SLAPP 101

The Texas Anti-SLAPP law is known as the Texas Citizens Participation Act (the “TCPA” found at Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code at § 27.001, et seq.).

“If a legal action is based on, relates to, or is in response to a party’s exercise of the right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association, that party may file a motion to dismiss the legal action.”  Id. at 27.003(a).   A defendant invoking the TCPA must therefore show three elements by a preponderance of the evidence: (1) there is a legal action; (2) “based on, relates to, or is in response to”; and (3) one of the protected activities.

“[A] court shall dismiss a legal action against the moving party if the moving party shows by a preponderance of the evidence that the legal action is based on, relates to, or is in response to the party’s exercise of: (1) the right of free speech; (2) the right to petition; or (3) the right of association.”  Id. at 27.005(b).

The Dallas Court of Appeals ruled no “public concern” in internal communications

In 2015, the Dallas Court of Appeals held that the law did not apply to internal communications within a company about an employee’s performance because that was not a matter of “public concern” despite the claim by the employer (ExxonMobil) that the issues touched on matters of public safety.  See ExxonMobil v. Coleman, 2015 WL2206466 (Tex.App.—Dallas May 12, 2015).

ExxonMobil claimed that the plaintiff failed to “gauge” one of the storage tanks and after an investigation ExxonMobil terminated him.  The plaintiff denied all wrongdoing and sued ExxonMobil and the employees who participated in the investigation for publishing defamatory statements about him during the internal investigation bringing the TCPA into a typical employment dispute.

Both the trial court and the court of appeals held the TCPA did not apply and refused to dismiss the suit.  Despite the defendants’ efforts to claim it was a matter of public safety, the court found the investigation focused on job performance and not the results that could happen if the storage tanks were not properly maintained.  Therefore, the statements “involve nothing more than an internal personnel matter at Exxon” and therefore “were not a matter of public concern.”

The Texas Supreme Court says matters of public concern are matters of public concern        

Relying upon its earlier decision of Lippincott v. Wisenhunt, 462 S.W.3d 507, 509 (Tex. 2015) (per curiam), the Supreme Court of Texas ruled there is no requirement that the communications themselves have to be public.  Instead, the statute only requires that the communication be made in connection with a matter of public concern. The court wrote:

The allegations include claims that Whisenhunt “failed to provide adequate coverage for pediatric cases,” administered a “different narcotic than was ordered prior to pre-op or patient consent being completed,” falsified a scrub tech record on multiple occasions, and violated the company’s sterile protocol policy. We have previously acknowledged that the provision of medical services by a health care professional constitutes a matter of public concern. See Neely v. Wilson, 418 S.W.3d 52, 70 n.12 & 26 (Tex. 2013) (determining that the public had a right to know about a doctor’s alleged inability to practice medicine due to a mental or physical condition); see also TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 27.001(7) (defining “matter of public concern” to include issues related to health or safety, community well-being, and the provision of services in the marketplace, among other things). Thus, we conclude these communications were made in connection with a matter of public concern.

In ExxonMobil v. Coleman, the Supreme Court of Texas criticized the Dallas Court for suggesting that the communications at issue had to involve more than a “tangential relationship” to matters of public concern. Not finding that required by the statute which expressly states that the communications have to be made “in connection with” or about “an issue related to” safety, the court held the TCPA applied. As a result, the case was sent back to see whether the plaintiff Coleman met his burden of establishing clear and specific evidence for each essential element of his claim.

Plead defamation with care

If you add a defamation claim to your case, do so with caution. Regardless of who sees the alleged defamatory statement, if the defendant can make an argument that the alleged statement was made “in connection with” or about “an issue related to”  a public concern, you will likely face a Motion to Dismiss.  It automatically stays discovery, gives the defendant an automatic right to appeal and if a defendant prevails on a motion to dismiss, Texas courts are required to award the defendant “(1) court costs, reasonable attorney’s fees, and other expenses incurred in defending against the legal action as justice and equity may require; and (2) sanctions against the party who brought the legal action as the court determines sufficient to deter the party who brought the legal action from bringing similar actions described in this chapter.”  Id. at 27.009(a).

Go to Part 4 – A decision in Schlumberger

Go to Part 3 – The Schlumberger case and employment disputes

Go to Part 2 – In Practice

Go to Part 1 – The basics of the Texas Anti-SLAPP law

To conclude the series, we look at one more opinion — Serafine v. Blunt, No. 03-12-00726-CV, 2015 WL 2061922 (Tex. App.—Austin May 1, 2015).  This case dealt with a property dispute, but the real interest comes from the lengthy concurring opinion that is worth your read if you are studying the broad applicability of the Anti-SLAPP law.

In this property dispute amongst neighbors, Serafine asserted claims for trespass to try title, trespass, nuisance, negligence, and fraud by nondisclosure, and sought declaratory and injunctive relief, in addition to damages and attorneys’ fees. The Blunts answered Serafine’s suit and also filed counterclaims, asserting that Serafine tortiously interfered with their contract with the drainage and foundation company and that Serafine violated Chapter 12 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code by fraudulently filing a lis pendens in the Travis County Real Property Records.  Serafine moved to dismiss the Blunts’ counterclaims under the TCPA which the trial court denied.

Serafine contends that she established that the Blunts filed their counterclaims in response to her exercise of her right to petition, i.e., in response to her filing suit against them, because the two counterclaims on their face complained of her filing of the lawsuit and her filing of the lis pendens notice based on her claims related to the property boundary. The Blunts argued that their tortious-interference counterclaim was not based solely on Serafine’s filing of the lawsuit, but also on her harassing and threatening conduct before and after the lawsuit. They further argued that Serafine incorrectly argued that a lis pendens cannot serve as the basis for a fraudulent-lien claim.

The appellate court held the TCPA applied in part because the Blunts’ tortious interference counterclaim was, in part based on, related to, or in response to Serafine’s filing of the suit and that their fraudulent-lien counterclaim is based on, related to, or in response to Serafine’s filing of the lis pendens, both of which filings are exercises of Serafine’s “right to petition.”  However, to the extent that the Blunts’ tortious-interference counterclaim was based, in part, on Serafine’s alleged threats made outside the context of the lawsuit, then the TCPA did not apply.  The appellate court therefore dismissed the majority of the tortious interference and false lien claims and remanded the claim back to the trial court for consideration of the attorneys’ fee awards and the remaining claim related to threats as opposed to the filing of the suit.

The lengthy concurring opinion found the TCPA should apply in this case, but raised concerns that the TCPA was being used too broadly.  The Houston Court of Appeals may agree.  In Jardin v. Marklund, 431 S.W.3d 765 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, no pet.), the court attacked at length the notion that the TCPA’s protections for the “exercise of the right to petition” can be invoked “simply by filing a petition in a lawsuit between private parties.” It found the TCPA incorporates, and must be construed in light of the purpose of the act and its First Amendment underpinnings.  The Jardin majority reasoned courts should draw lines between “public” versus “private” issues, such that merely filing a lawsuit would not invoke the constitutional right to petition (and, in turn, the TCPA) unless the suit’s subject matter independently concerned government or “the public interest.”

This would appear to be more in line with the ExxonMobil v. Coleman decision in Part 2.  The Dallas court considered the purpose of the TCPA and concluded that “to constitute an exercise of the right of association under the Act, the nature of the ‘communication between individuals who join together’ must involve public or citizen’s participation.” Id. at 12.  The court continued that reading the definition of the right “right of association” in isolation “would lead to absurd results” and would apply the TCPA to “to virtually any private communication between two people about a shared interest.” Id. at 10.

Erica Badu – music management and Anti-SLAPP

Another case to watch is Levatino v. Apple Tree Café Touring, Inc., No. 05-15-00614-CV in the Dallas Court of Appeals. In that case, the defendant had claimed he was the manager for Erica Badu.  He and his counsel sent Rule 408 demand letters to Badu and her company.  Badu and the company filed a declaratory judgment action.  The defendant, Levatino, then filed a TCPA motion to dismiss claiming his pre-suit demand were both the exercise of the right to petition and the right to associate.  The trial court, before the more recent Supreme Court of Texas decisions, denied the motion.

A final note on “clear and specific evidence”

In In Re Lipsky, __S.W.3d__, No. 13-0928, 2015 WL 1870073 (Tex. Apr. 24, 2015, orig. proceeding), Lipsky moved to dismiss a multimillion-dollar defamation suit the plaintiff, Range, filed against him after he criticized the company’s hydraulic fracturing activities near his home. Lipsky argued Range failed to prove that he said anything defamatory and has only offered a “conclusory” affidavit alleging the company suffered $3 million in damages, which is insufficient to meet the TCPA’s evidentiary standard.

The Supreme Court of Texas ruled the defendant is allowed to rely upon circumstantial evidence to satisfy its burdens under the TCPA writing:

 In a defamation case that implicates the TCPA, pleadings and evidence that establishes the facts of when, where, and what was said, the defamatory nature of the statements, and how they damaged the plaintiff should be sufficient to resist a TCPA motion to dismiss.

 Though the TCPA initially demands more information about the underlying claim, the Act does not impose an elevated evidentiary standard or categorically reject circumstantial evidence.   In short, it does not impose a higher burden of proof than that required of the plaintiff at trial.

The point of this series is that the Anti-SLAPP provisions aren’t just for us defamation lawyers anymore.  All litigators should have a basic understanding of how this works and ask of the opposing side’s claims have anything to do with: (1) the right of free speech; (2) the right to petition; or (3) the right of association.petitioning the government as those are broadly defined.

Go to Part 3 – The Schlumberger case and employment disputes

Go to Part 2 – In Practice

Go to Part 1 – The basics of the Texas Anti-SLAPP law

tjb-seal-144Since we published Part 3 that discussed the details of an interesting case here in Houston, Schlumberger v. Rutherford, the First Court of Appeals issued its opinion on Tuesday. The best description of the decision is a punt.  The court found it does not have jurisdiction to consider a partial granting of a motion to dismiss under the Anti-SLAPP provisions or TCPA and summarily affirmed the denial of the part of the motion related to the breach of contract claim. You can read the opinion here: Schlumberger v. Rutherford

While disappointing for Schlumberger and practitioners like us, it may be the right decision.  The Anti-SLAPP statute allows for an appeal of order that “denies a motion to dismiss filed under Section 27.003.” TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 51.014(a)(12). As pointed out by the court, “[b]y contrast, no statute expressly provides for interlocutory appeal of an order that grants such a motion.”

Because the court only dismissed some of the claims and the case is still proceeding, it is considered an “interlocutory order” which is not subject to an appeal under these circumstances.  For Schlumberger to appeal, it has to proceed to trial on the parts of the case that remain, such as breach of contract, and then decide whether or not to appeal after a final trial or other resolution of the entire case.

What about the breach of contract claim?

As you may recall, the trial court denied Rutherford’s Anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss as it related to her breach of contract claim.  Because that was a denial of the motion to dismiss, the court of appeals determined it could consider only that part of the decision.

The court stated that standard that the party moving to dismiss, in this case Rutherford, had to establish that she was engaged in one of the three protected activities: (1) the right of free speech; (2) the right to petition; or (3) the right of association.  If the moving party does this, then the party trying to defeat the motion to dismiss, Sclumberger, has to establish “by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in question” — in this case, breach of contract.

Unfortunately, the court of appeals glossed over the important first issue – does the TCPA even apply in this case and went straight to a consideration of whether Schlumberger could provide clear and specific evidence of each element of its breach of contract claim. There was no discussion from the court as to whether Rutherford was engaged in: (1) the right of free speech; (2) the right to petition; or (3) the right of association.  Can we assume that the court of appeals found she did engage in one of those activities in light of the fact that they glossed over it and went straight to the second step of the analysis? Maybe, that’s what lawyers are likely to argue if they want a broad application of the act.

As a result, we may now have to wait to see if the case goes to trial and is then subsequently appealed to determine whether the trial court got it wrong or right. Until then, the case goes back to the trial court and the large sanction penalty related to the granting of the motion to dismiss on the misappropriation of trade secrets, conversion, breach of fiduciary duty, and violation of the Texas Theft Liability Act claims stays in tact.

Go to Part 2 – In Practice

Go to Part 1 – The basics of the Texas Anti-SLAPP law

In part three we are going to deep dive into a specific case that has garnered a lot of attention-Schlumberger v. Rutherford which is currently on appeal to the Houston Court of Appeals (case number 01-14-00776-CV).

Schlumberger sued Rutherford, its former in-house counsel, for allegedly misappropriating intellectual property before leaving for a job with Acacia Research Group.  Schlumberger alleged it had forensic data proving that Rutherford copied filed onto a USB hard driver before removing it from her company laptop.  Rutherford denied it.

In the middle of the case, Schlumberger amended its petition to claim that Rutherford was the source of information for Acacia’s ongoing infringement suit against Schlumberger in federal court.  Schlumberger alleged Rutherford told Acacia to acquire patents she knew Schlumberger was allegedly violating.  In response, Rutherford argued Schlumberger was using the trade secret case as improper discovery tool and leverage in the separate patent infringement case.

Rutherford moved to dismiss Schlumberger’s claims under the TCPA.  She argued she was targeted by Schlumberger because she had exercised her right to association with Acacia, she spoke with Acacia about litigation strategies and for signing off on patent litigation.  Thus, Rutherford argued, Schlumberger’s claim against her was “based on, relates to, or is in response to [her] exercise of the right . . . to petition, or right of association.”

The TCPA defines “exercise of the right of association” to mean “a communication between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem Code § 27.001(2).  The “exercise of the right to petition” is defined with reference to a specified list of communications that have a nexus to participation in government. Id. at § 27.001(2)-(4).

The trial court agreed finding Rutherford properly invoked the TCPA and therefore shifted the burden to Schlumberger to come up with clear and specific prima facie evidence of its trade secret claims.  The trial court found that Schlumberger failed to do so and dismissed the misappropriation, conversion, breach of fiduciary duty and violations of the Texas Theft Liability Act claims leaving only the breach of contract claim.  As a result, the court ordered Schlumberger to pay $350,000 in fees and $250,000 in sanctions.  Schlumberger appealed and Rutherford cross-appealed trying to get the breach of contract claim dismissed on the same TCPA grounds.

On appeal, Schlumberger is arguing the TCPA does not apply to this private commercial dispute citing the purpose of the act is “to encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of persons to petition, speak freely, associate freely, and otherwise participate in government to the maximum extent permitted by law.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.002. In the brief Schlumberger argued:

As this Court has recognized however, untethering the TCPA’s “right to petition” and “right of association” provisions from its “larger public purpose” and the “generally recognized parameters of First Amendment protections” leads to an unreasonable and absurd expansion of the statute’s applicability. Cheniere Energy, 2014 WL 5011132, at *6 (noting that if the statute is not read in light of these considerations, “any communication that is part of the decision-making process in an employment dispute—to name just one example—could be used to draw within the TCPA’s summary dismissal procedures private suits implicating only private issues”).

Brief at 43.  Essentially, Schlumberger is arguing that if this ruling is allowed to stand that any communications made in the context of a lawsuit or any tortious interference claim would be subject to the TCPA.  Given the broad definition of the “exercise of the right of association,” it could be argued the TCPA applies to any cause of action that is “based on, relates to, or is in response to a party’s” joining another entity’s employment.

The particular facts of this case may make it the exception and not the new rule.  Schlumberger secured an ex parte temporary restraining order against Rutherford.  After deposing the people who signed the affidavits used by Schlumberger to obtain the restraining order, Rutherford argued the affidavits were misleading. Rutherford also argued that the state trade secret case was a ruse to obtain discovery and retaliate for the patent infringement cases in federal court.  Given the difficult in proving something is a trade secret, however, we may see this tactic more often requiring trade secret claimants to provide clear and specific prima facie evidence of the existence of a trade secret.

The case was argued on May 5, 2015, and it will provide another chance for the courts of appeal to determine the scope of the applicability of the TCPA.

Part 2 – In Practice

Go to Part 1 – The basics of the Texas Anti-SLAPP law.

The exercise of the right to free speech on matters of public concern

             It is easy to see how this applies to your straightforward defamation case assuming the defendant engaged in the “exercise of the right of free speech” which means “a communication made in connection with a matter of public concern.” A “matter of public concern” is an issue related to:

  • health or safety;
  • environmental, economic, or community well-being;
  • the government;
  • a public official or public figure; or
  • a good, product, or service in the marketplace.

If the defendant who has been sued can show the allegedly defamatory speech was about a “matter of public concern,” then the burden shifts to the defendant to come up clear and convincing prima facie evidence of a valid defamation claim.  A lot of the litigation concerns whether the speech is a matter of public concern and whether the plaintiffs can provide the clear and convincing evidence to avoid dismissal.

What about the right to petition and the right to association? How broad are those?

            The Act also covers the right to petition and the right to association which greatly broadens its application as courts struggle with the definitions noting that only the “exercise of free speech” is limited to “matters of public concern.”  The TCPA defines “exercise of the right of association” to mean “a communication between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem Code § 27.001(2).  The “exercise of the right to petition” is defined with reference to a specified list of communications that have a nexus to participation in government. Id. at § 27.001(2)-(4).

Are internal emails matters of public concern and do they have to be?

            Earlier this year, the Dallas Court of Appeals held that the law did not apply to internal communications within a company about an employee’s performance because that was not a matter of public concern despite the claim by the employer (ExxonMobil) that the issues touched on matters of public safety.  See ExxonMobil v. Coleman, 2015 WL2206466 (Tex.App.—Dallas May 12, 2015), rule 53.7(f) motion granted May 29, 2015.  Of more interest is that ExxonMobil also moved to dismiss the claim because it argued it was engaged in the right of association.

            ExxonMobil claimed that the plaintiff failed to “gauge” one of the storage tanks and after an investigation ExxonMobil terminated him.  The plaintiff denied all wrongdoing and sued ExxonMobil and the employees who participated in the investigation for publishing defamatory statements about him during the internal investigation bringing the TCPA into a typical employment dispute.

            Both the trial court and the court of appeals held the TCPA did not apply and refused to dismiss the suit.  Despite the defendants’ efforts to claim it was a matter of public safety, the court found the investigation focused on job performance and not the results that could happen if the storage tanks were not properly maintained.  Therefore, the statements “involve nothing more than an internal personnel matter at Exxon” and therefore “were not a matter of public concern.”

            With regard to the right to the association, Exxon argued the communications were made between Exxon employees regarding issues in which they shared a common interest, specifically Coleman’s job performance and his compliance with the safety guidelines.  In response, the Court of Appeals wrote:

Although these commuinications seem to fall within the plain language of the Act’s definition of the exercise of the right of association, we decline to read the statute so broadly, concluding it would lead to absurd results.

Id. at *4.  The court then spent numerous pages explaining that reading the definition of the right to association in a vacuum without considering the purpose of the act would encompass any private communications between two people about any shared interest.  The court, therefore, reasoned the “public participation” had to apply to the defendant’s engagement in the right to association and the right to petition as well.

Can the right of association govern every corporate email?

            The court relied in part on the First Court of Appeals decision in See Cheniere Energy, Inc. v. Lotfi, 449 S.W.3d 210, 216–17 (Tex.App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2014, no pet.). In that case, the plaintiff sued her former employer for wrongful termination and sued two former coworkers for tortious interference.   449 S.W.3d at 211–12.   The coworkers moved to dismiss the claim against them under the Act, asserting the plaintiff’s lawsuit was brought in response to their exercise of the right of association.  Id. at 212.   The plaintiff filed a response, but neither side filed any affidavit evidence.   With only the pleadings to go on, the trial court denied the motion to dismiss.  Id.  The court of appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling, concluding the coworkers failed to meet their burden to show they were entitled to dismissal because the limited allegations in the plaintiff’s pleadings did not show the coworkers had a communication, acted in furtherance of a common interest, or that the claim against them is related to their exercise of the right of association.  Id. at 214–15.

            Referring to the title of the Act, the court noted that the terms “citizen” and “participation” contemplate a larger public purpose.  Id. at 216.   It further stated the plaintiff’s lawsuit did not implicate the legislature’s express declaration of the purpose behind the Act, which indicates that a nexus is required between the communication and the generally recognized parameters of First Amendment protection.  Id.  “Otherwise, any communication that is part of the decision-making process in an employment dispute—to name just one example—could be used to draw within the [Act’s] summary dismissal procedures private suits implicating only private issues.”   Cheniere Energy, 449 S.W.3d at 216–17.

            Two members of the three-judge panel concurred, writing separately to emphasize that the Act did not apply to the plaintiff’s tortious interference claim against her coworkers.  Id. at 217 (Jennings, J., concurring).   The concurrence stated that, standing alone, the Act’s definition of the “exercise of the right of association” in section 27.001(2) appears to include communications that are not constitutionally protected and do not concern citizen or public participation.  Id. at 219.   The concurrence stated that reading section 27.001(2) in isolation would lead to absurd results and would “actually thwart any meritorious lawsuit for demonstrable injury in which a plaintiff alleges that two or more persons engaged in a civil wrong involving a communication.”  Id.  At a minimum, such a reading would add unnecessary delay and expense to a plaintiff’s lawsuit.  Id.

But, the Texas Supreme Court says don’t amend the Act.

            This decision followed the Supreme Court of Texas’s opinion in Lippincott v. Whisenhunt, __ S.W.3d __, No. 13-0926, 2015 WL1967025 (Tex. April 24, 2015).  In that case, the defendants allegedly made disparaging comments about the plaintiff, who was a certified registered nurse anesthetist contracted to provide anesthesiology services, in emails internally to the company.  The allegedly defamatory emails included allegations that the plaintiff represented himself to be a doctor, endangered patients for his own financial gain, and sexually harassed employees.

            The plaintiff sued for defamation, tortious interference with existing and prospective business relations, and conspiracy to interfere in business relations.  The defendants moved to dismiss all of the claims based on the TCPA.  The trial court dismissed all of the claims except for defamation because the plaintiff was able to provide prima facie evidence of the defamation claim, but not the others.

            The court of appeals reversed and remanded holding the act does not apply to “private” communications such as internal emails thereby reviving all of the plaintiff’s claims.  The Supreme Court ruled there is no requirement that the communications themselves have to be public.  Instead, the statute only requires that the communication be made in connection with a matter of public concern.

            With regard to whether the communications involved matters of public concern, the court wrote:

The allegations include claims that Whisenhunt “failed to provide adequate coverage for pediatric cases,” administered a “different narcotic than was ordered prior to pre-op or patient consent being completed,” falsified a scrub tech record on multiple occasions, and violated the company’s sterile protocol policy. We have previously acknowledged that the provision of medical services by a health care professional constitutes a matter of public concern. See Neely v. Wilson, 418 S.W.3d 52, 70 n.12 & 26 (Tex. 2013) (determining that the public had a right to know about a doctor’s alleged inability to practice medicine due to a mental or physical condition); see also TEX. CIV. PRAC. & REM. CODE § 27.001(7) (defining “matter of public concern” to include issues related to health or safety, community well-being, and the provision of services in the marketplace, among other things). Thus, we conclude these communications were made in connection with a matter of public concern.

Id. at *2. The court concluded that because the defendant had demonstrated the applicability of the act, the court of appeals had to consider whether the plaintiffs had met his prima facie burden of proof.

            In the decision the Supreme Court of Texas said that courts should not “judicially amend” the act by adding words that are not there.  Id. at *1.  The Dallas Court of Appeals considered the instruction from the higher court, but wrote:  “Although we are aware that in Lippincott, the supreme court cautioned against “judicially amending” the Act by adding words that are not there, we agree that the legislature could not have intended for section 27.001(2) to be read in isolation.  We conclude that, to constitute an exercise of the right of association under the Act, the nature of the “communication between individuals who join together” must involve public or citizen’s participation.”  ExxonMobil, 2015 WL 2206466 at *6.

Part 3 will look at the impending Schlumberger decision.

Kate bluebonnets

It’s Spring in Texas which means one of two things – the bluebonnets are out and in odd years, our legislature is back at work.  One makes me grateful to be in Texas and the other only meets every other year.  Here are a few bills we are watching this session:

Service of Process Via Social Media- HB 241

The Legislature is making another effort on this.

The bill provides:

Sec. 17.032.  SUBSTITUTED SERVICE THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE.
(a)  If substituted service of citation is authorized under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, the court, in accordance with the rules adopted by the supreme court under Subsection (b), may prescribe as a method of service an electronic communication sent to the defendant through a social media presence.

(b)  The supreme court shall adopt rules to provide for the substituted service of citation by an electronic communication sent to a defendant through a social media presence.

It looks like the bill stalled in committee.

Codifying a fair reporting privilege – SB 627

The Legislature continues to show its disdain for defamation suits.  This time, they are considering a bill that would codify a sometimes-recognized common law fair reporting privilege.  The privilege allows for a fair reporting of public records and allegations as long as done in good faith.  It looks like this one may become law.

The bill provides:

(b)  This section applies to:

(1)  a fair, true, and impartial account of:

(A)  a judicial proceeding, unless the court has prohibited publication of a matter because in its judgment the interests of justice demand that the matter not be published; (B)  an official proceeding, other than a judicial  proceeding, to administer the law; (C)  an executive or legislative proceeding (including a proceeding of a legislative committee), a proceeding in or before a managing board of an educational or eleemosynary institution supported from the public revenue, of the governing body of a city or town, of a county commissioners court, and of a public school board or a report of or debate and statements made in any of those proceedings; or (D)  the proceedings of a public meeting dealing with a public purpose, including statements and discussion at the meeting or other matters of public concern occurring at the meeting; [and]

(2)  publication of allegations made by a third party regarding matters of public concern, regardless of the truth or falsity of the allegations; and

(3)  reasonable and fair comment on or criticism of an official act of a public official or other matter of public concern published for general information.

(c)  This section does not abrogate or lessen any other defense, remedy, immunity, or privilege available under other constitutional, statutory, case, or common law or rule provisions.

(d)  This section shall be construed liberally to effectuate its purpose and intent fully.

Civil Penalties for Frivolous Patent Claims – SB 1457

This bill also looks like it might be headed for passage.  The pertinent part of the bill states:

       Sec. 17.952.  BAD FAITH CLAIM OF PATENT INFRINGEMENT PROHIBITED.

(a)  A person may not send to an end user located or doing business in this state a written or electronic communication that is a bad faith claim of patent infringement.

(b)  A communication is a bad faith claim of patent infringement if the communication includes a claim that the end user or a person affiliated with the end user has infringed a patent and is liable for that infringement and:

(1)  the communication falsely states that the sender has filed a lawsuit in connection with the claim;

(2)  the claim is objectively baseless because:

(A)  the sender or a person the sender represents does not have a current right to license the patent to or enforce the patent against the end user; (B)  the patent has been held invalid or unenforceable in a final judgment or administrative decision; or (C)  the infringing activity alleged in the communication occurred after the patent expired; or

(3)  the communication is likely to materially mislead a reasonable end user because the communication does not contain information sufficient to inform the end user of:

(A)  the identity of the person asserting the claim; (B)  the patent that is alleged to have been infringed; and (C)  at least one product, service, or technology obtained by the end user that is alleged to infringe the patent or the activity of the end user that is alleged to infringe the patent.

The bill only allows for enforcement by the Attorney General and not private litigants.

We will keep on eye on these any other bills of note.

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Texas issued a 5-4 decision holding a plaintiff needs to establish jurisdiction over an anonymous blogger before a court will allow pre-suit discovery that would likely unmask the blogger’s identity.  Both the majority and dissenting opinions in In re John Doe a/k/a The Trooper are available here.  It will certainly complicate the process of suing anonymous online defamers.

An anonymous blogger who went by “the Trooper” went after Reynolds & Reynolds Co. and its chairman. As we often recommend, the the company sought a pre-suit deposition from Google to try and identify the blogger.  The application was filed in Harris County, where the chairman resided.

In Texas, Rule 202 allows for a presuit deposition to determine whether you want to investigate possible claims.  It is cheaper and more efficient than filing a lawsuit.   The application to do this must be filed in the “proper court.”  You have to serve the petition on the company you want the discovery from (in this case Google) and the party who is the subject of the possible suit (in this case the Trooper).  The company did just that.  Google was unopposed.  The Trooper fought the discovery on a John Doe basis and argued he was not subject to jurisdiction in Texas and therefore the request was not filed in the “proper court.”

Jurisdiction means the subject of the suit must have some connection to state where the lawsuit has been filed.  For example, if you’ve never been to North Dakota, it would be a violation of your due process rights to be dragged into a lawsuit there.  The blogger argued he has no connection to Texas other than the fact his blog is viewable in Texas.

The Majority

The trial court was going to allow the discovery, but the Texas Supreme Court reversed.  The majority wrote:

To allow discovery of a potential claim against a defendant over which the court would not have personal jurisdiction denies him the protection Texas procedure would otherwise afford.   . . . [A] defendant who files a special appearance in a suit is entitled to have the issue of personal jurisdiction heard and decided before any other matter.  . . .  To allow witnesses in a potential suit to be deposed more extensively than would be permitted if the suit were actually filed would circumvent the protections. . .”

The court continued:

The Trooper cannot ignore this Rule 202 proceeding without losing his claimed First Amendment right to anonymity. By ordering discovery from Google, the court has adjudicated that claim. He has thus been forced to litigate the merits of an important issue before a court that has not been shown to have personal jurisdiction over him.

The Dissent

The problem with the ruling is that it will make it very difficult to unmask people online when you do not know their identity.  If the anonymous blogger does not have to at least reveal their state of residence, where is a defamation victim to go?  Four justices of the all-Republican Supreme Court dissented because “the Court requires a premature and impossible showing, in the process allowing an alleged tortfeasor to hide behind his anonymity regardless of whether the First Amendment allows it.”

The dissent explained:

In today’s case, involving the permissible scope of pre-suit discovery in Texas, the Court holds that the applicable procedural rule requires that personal jurisdiction be established over an anticipated defendant—even when that defendant’s identity is withheld—before such discovery may be granted. And it does so despite the fact that it would be impossible for a court to make the required minimum-contacts determination with respect to a potential party who refuses to reveal the jurisdictional facts (such as identity and domicile) that form the basis for that decision. This effectively abolishes a cause of action for defamation against a person who claims anonymity, particularly when the defamation occurs online.

In the context of an actual lawsuit, as opposed to a petition for pre-suit discovery, a defendant who claims they are not subject to jurisdiction is still subject to the discovery process.  The plaintiff can send discovery forcing the defendant to identify all of the defendant’s contacts with Texas generally and with regard to the specific incident.  Yet, in this case, it appears the anonymous blogger simply provided an affidavit that he had no contacts with Texas and there was no opportunity to dig further.  The dissent recognized this conundrum.

[A] court cannot conduct a minimum-contacts analysis while wearing a blindfold; when a party chooses to remain anonymous, a court is powerless to evaluate his connection to the forum state. Several federal district courts have noted as much, in the context of copyright infringement cases, when denying motions to quash subpoenas issued to Internet service providers to ascertain the identity of anonymous defendants. 

My two cents

From just reading the opinions, it is hard to tell how much information, if any, the anonymous poster provided other than a statement that he did not have any connection with Texas.  It seems to me there are sufficient safeguards in place that require at least some connection with the State before the discovery would be allowed — the victim of the defamation was in Texas which, in some circumstances, can be enough to establish jurisdiction for the actual lawsuit.  As the dissent points out, there are already tests in place to make sure the plaintiff has a valid complaint before the courts will allow discovery about an anonymous speaker.

Without some relief, what is the victim to do?  Where does he go to get the information he needs? Or, does he have to file a suit and follow the more formal and expensive process?  The rules do not allow lawyers to file suits unless we have done a good faith investigation of the facts and law.  Hence, the reason for presuit discovery.

Alas, all is not necessarily lost.  As pointed out by Strasburger’s Debra L. Innocenti, victims can still use out-of-court cyber-sleuths to help identify the defamer.  We are staunch defenders of the First Amendment, but we have been around long enough to know there is abuse of the ease with which someone can superficially damage people anonymously on the Internet, whether it be defamation, a competitor or a jilted ex.  The court has now taken away a standard tactic that helps people get redress when warranted.

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Texas issued two important defamation rulings.  The first, Kinney v. Barnes, held that injunctions to prohibit defamatory speech do not pass constitutional muster.  The second, Burbage v. Burbage Funeral Home, raises the bar on the recovery of compensatory damages.

Injunctions preventing speech are an unconstitutional prior restraint

In Kinney, the plaintiff sought a permanent injunction preventing the defendant from further making further defamatory statements and making the defendant remove defamatory statements.  Texas courts had already ruled temporary injunctions preventing additional defamatory statements were unconstitutional prior restraints of free speech.

The Supreme Court of Texas clarified: “We hold that, while a permanent injunction requiring the removal of posted speech that has been adjudicated defamatory is not a prior restraint, an injunction prohibiting future speech based on that adjudication impermissibly threatens to sweep protected speech into its prohibition and is an unconstitutional infringement on Texans’ free-speech rights under Article I, Section 8 of the Texas Constitution.

Certain injunctions against obscenity or illegal commercial speech are still permitted, but defamation, alone, cannot support an injunction.  Because it is a prior restraint, an injunction would only be allowed “when essential to the avoidance of an impending danger . . . and only when it is the least restrictive means of preventing the harm.”  Preventing defamation, which can be subject to damages, does not satisfy that test.

You can read the case here – Kinney v. Barnes

What are appropriate damages?

Burbage, meanwhile, involved a messy interfamily squabble where one family member accused the other of engaging in elderly abuse against the matriarch.  The jury awarded the individual defendant $6,552,000: $250,000 for past injury to reputation; $2,500,000 for future injury to reputation; $1,000 for past mental anguish; $1,000 for future mental anguish; and $3,800,000 in exemplary damages.

The jury awarded the family-run funeral home $3,050,000: $50,000 for past injury to reputation; $1,000,000 for future injury to reputation; and $2,000,000 in exemplary damages.

The court opined:  “Texas law presumes that defamatory per se statements cause reputational harm and entitle a plaintiff to general damages such as loss of reputation and mental anguish.  But this presumption yields only nominal damages. Beyond nominal damages, we review presumed damages for evidentiary support.”

Reviewing the evidence, the court noted there was a lot of speculation about the impact the defamatory statements would have on the business.  Speculative evidence is not sufficient.  The court also drew the distinctions between special damages, nominal damages, reputational damages, economic damages and their interplay with defamation and business disparagement.

In conclusion, the court wrote, “[t]he evidence does not show actual loss of reputation, that anyone believed the defamation, that the Burbage Funeral Home suffered an actual loss, or even the funeral home’s actual value. On the record here, we hold that no evidence supports the jury’s award of $3.8 million in actual damages.”

As a result, the court determined there was no actual damages.  With no actual damages, there could be no exemplary damages.   Therefore, the plaintiff got nothing other than a piece of paper confirming he was defamed.  Honor can be expensive.

Here is the opinion – Burbage

A Houston area woman has sued Facebook asking for $123 million because Facebook was slow to take down a fake a profile created by her ex-boyfriend with pornographic images.

You can see the story here

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvJzYGu548o

 

The plaintiff sued Facebook and the ex-boyfriend for negligence, breach of contract, gross negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and defamation.  The request for $123 million is based on $.10 for every Facebook user.  You can read the amended petition here–Ali v. Facebook petition.

My guess is this case will likely be removed to federal court (both defendants are out of state) and then summarily dismissed as to Facebook.  As regular readers should know by now, website operators like Facebook are not liable for the content created by others under the Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  It provides that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” This federal law preempts any state laws to the contrary: “[n]o cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section.”

Although sympathetic to the plight of the plaintiff, Section 230 unquestionably (and may result in sanctions against the plaintiff) immunizes Facebook from the negligence, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation claims.

It appears the plaintiff is heavily relying upon the fact it took Facebook a long time to take the fake profile down.  Facebook’s community guidelines do prohibit fake profiles. Facebook says it will take down posts and profiles in violation of the guidelines, but it never contractually commits to the users it will quickly police the site.  In fact, Facebook expressly says it will not guarantee an expedient removal stating:

If you see something on Facebook that you believe violates our terms, you should report it to us. Please keep in mind that reporting a piece of content does not guarantee that it will be removed from the site.

It is therefore questionable whether there is any contractual obligation on Facebook to take down offensive or fake profiles.  Regardless, most courts do not allow plaintiffs to artfully plead around the Communications Decency Act and have poured out similar breach of contract claims.

We will keep an eye on this case.  You can listen to my interview with KRLD Radio in Dallas about the case here. facebook lawsuit with Mitch Carr – KRLD

 

 

Last month, the Sixth Circuit ruled that website operators are not liable for content provided by others (User Generated Content or UGC) because of Section 230 immunity under the Communications Decency Act in the Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment decision.

Based on the history of the CDA, that should be no surprise. However, internet lawyers were watching this case closely because a federal judge let a defamation case go to trial and this could have created a hole in the CDA defense.  Alas, the court of appeals ruled the way most experts expected and the world can return to normal.

We posted about the trial court’s decision before.  Last summer, a jury found TheDirty.com “encouraged the development of what is offensive” and was therefore liable for the defamatory posts about former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones. The jury awarded Jones $38,000 in actual damages and $300,000 in punitive damages.

As a refresher, Section 230 of the CDA provides: ”[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Because the websites are not the publisher or speaker, the sites can’t be liable for defamation. Most courts immediately dismiss website operators from defamation suits when the claim is based on UGC.

Jones sued Dirty World Entertainment Recordings which owns TheDirty.com. The site, as expected, immediately filed a motion to dismiss the complaint because the claims were based primarily on the UGC. The trial judge denied the motion arguing the defendant purposefully seeks out and encourages defamatory content. The court wrote “the very name of the site, the manner in which it is managed, and the personal comments of defendant Richie” shows that the site “specifically encouraged development of what is offensive about the content.”

The court of appeals said the trial court erred when it held The Dirty was the “creator” or “developer” of the offensive content and when the trial court allowed a “encouragement test” that would cause a website to lose the CDA immunity.

The Sixth Circuit instead implemented the more accepted material contribution test requiring evidence the website operator was “responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development” of the defamatory content.  Based on this test, the appellate court found the website did not “author” the statements, pay for the content and did not require defamatory content to use the site.  The court also confirmed there was no liability for selecting the content or refusing to edit the content.

What does it mean?

The CDA has been a very effective tool for website operators.  Imagine if Facebook or YouTube could be sued for defamation.  Those sites would not exist.  With the good, comes the like of The Dirty.  There is an old saying that “bad facts make bad law.”  That almost happened in this case. TheDirty.com asks people to “submit dirt.” The submission form has entries for the “dirt,” and provides a link to upload photographs.  More reputable websites, don’t have this feature.  But, if The Dirty is protected, then you should have no worries that your more mainstream site will also be protected.  If there is going to be any changes to allow for liability for those who “encourage” defamation, the change will have to come from the state house and not the court house.