COACH STRIKES OUT UNDER THE TCPA

Bilbrey v. Williams
Fort Worth Court of Appeals, No. 02-13-00332-CV (March 12, 2015)
Justices Dauphinot (Opinion), Gardner, and Meier
Children will be childish. Sometimes grown-ups will be, too. Williams, a 6-foot 5-inch assistant baseball coach in a league for kids seven-and-under, took offense at the league’s inquiry into complaints about his allegedly aggressive and abusive behavior at games generally and toward the league’s young teenage umpires in particular. Rather than work through the process, Williams sued Bilbrey and Hall, another coach and the commissioner of the league, alleging defamation in their communications relating to that inquiry. Bilbrey and Hall moved for dismissal under the Texas anti-SLAPP statute, the TCPA. The trial court denied the motion. But on interlocutory appeal, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals reversed.

The TCPA provides for dismissal of a lawsuit or cause of action based on the defendant’s “exercise of the right of free speech,” which the Act defines as “a communication made in connection with a matter of public concern,” e.g., “health or safety” or “community well-being.” The Court of Appeals held the statements in issue involved the “well-being and safety of children in the community” and therefore were “made in connection with a matter of public concern” and thus covered by the Act. In so doing, the Fort Worth Court rejected the recent holding of the Texarkana Court of Appeals in Whisenhunt v. Lippincott that the TCPA extends only to “speech made in a public forum,” i.e., “speech that rises to such a level that it can be considered participation in government.” Still, even if a plaintiff’s claim is predicated on the defendants’ “exercise of the right of free speech” on a “matter of public concern,” as here, that plaintiff can avoid dismissal under the TCPA if he or she “establishes by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in question.” Conducting a de novo review, the Court of Appeals concluded Williams had not met this burden. So, the Court remanded with instructions that the trial court dismiss Williams’s claims and consider an award of attorney’s fees (mandatory under the Act) and sanctions against him.

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