ANOTHER SLAPP-DOWN, DISMISSING DEFAMATION CLAIM BASED ON STATEMENTS MADE IN LITIGATION

Watson v. Hardman
Dallas Court of Appeals, No. 05-15-01355-CV (July 6, 2016)
Justices Lang, Evans, and Whitehill (Opinion)
A tragic auto accident took the lives of a husband, wife, and three of six children from their blended family. “Go Fund Me” accounts were established for the benefit of the surviving children; those accounts were administered by the Hardmans, the brother and sister-in-law of the husband killed in the crash. Watson, father of one of the surviving children, filed a Rule 202 petition seeking discovery regarding what he alleged to be the Hardmans’ misappropriation of funds from the Go-Fund-Me accounts. The Hardmans responded with their own lawsuit against Watson, alleging defamation based in part on comments in the Rule 202 Petition. Watson moved for dismissal under the state’s anti-SLAPP statute, Chapter 27 of the Civil Practice & Remedies Code. The trial court denied that motion, but the Dallas Court of Appeals reversed.

Rendering judgment for Watson and dismissing the claims based on statements in his Rule 202 petition, the Court held:
  • Watson’s Rule 202 petition was an “exercise of the [constitutionally protected] right to petition” under § 27.001(4)(A)(i) of the statute.

  • The statute does not require petitioning to be “made in connection with a matter of public concern” to be protected, as does an “exercise of the right of free speech,” and the Court declined to engraft such a requirement onto the statute.

  • Because the statements in his Rule 202 petition were protected by “absolute privilege,” Watson established a valid defense to the Hardmans’ claims arising from those statements.
The Court also reversed the trial court’s refusal to dismiss the Hardmans’ claims based on statements outside the Rule 202 proceeding, holding in the process:
  • Allegations of defamation regarding misappropriation of publicly solicited funds relate to “a matter of public concern,” such that the statements potentially qualify as protected “free speech” under the statute.

  • A movant/defendant may demonstrate the allegedly defamatory remarks relate to “a matter of public concern” by reference to pleadings; additional evidence beyond the pleadings was not necessary.
The Court remanded rather than rendering judgment on claims resting on alleged extra-judicial statements because, in the alternative to their opposition to the motion to dismiss, the Hardmans had sought the opportunity to take discovery about those statements, and the trial court had not addressed that request.

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