Texas Anti-SLAPP Law: The Expanding Scope of the Texas Citizen’s Participation Act – Part 5 (the conclusion)

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.