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.