Federal Judge finds that the TCPA applies in Federal Court
In the first ruling of its kind in Texas, a federal judge yesterday ruled explicitly that the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) applies to cases brought in federal court under diversity jurisdiction.
In the case of Christopher Williams v. Cordillera Communications, Inc., et al, No. 2:13-cv-00124 (S.D. Tex. June 11, 2014) (Order on Anti-SLAPP Motion) Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, a District Judge from the Southern District of Texas held that the Texas Citizens Participation Act applies to cases brought in federal court under diversity jurisdiction.
Williams initially brought the case against Cordillera Communications, Inc., and KVOA Communications, d/b/a KRIS Communications (KRIS) for defamation in 2013, based on KRIS’ 2013 reporting about Williams, a teacher, who had been “accused of criminal acts of a sexual nature involving young females, some of whom were his students.” Williams at *7. Specifically, the television station’s investigation related to evidence that school districts allowed Williams to resign in a manner that shielded the allegations and he was subsequently hired by other school districts who experienced “similar allegations of wrongdoing”. Id. The lawsuit was removed to federal court on the basis of diversity. In 2014, KRIS ran a follow-up story and Williams filed an amended complaint, adding new allegations of defamation based on the 2014 reports. In response to the new claims in the amended complaint, KRIS filed an anti-SLAPP motion.
In response to the anti-SLAPP motion, Williams objected on the grounds that the TCPA is procedural and does not apply in federal court. The court analyzed the statute under the Erie Doctrine and found that while there are procedural aspects to the TCPA, such as its time constraints and a stay of discovery, the procedures are “designed to prevent substantive consequences–the impairment of First Amendment rights and the time and expense of defending against litigation that has no demonstrable merit under state law regarding defamation.” Id. at 2.
The Williams court also looked to precedent in the Fifth Circuit, noting that the Fifth Circuit has concluded that the Louisiana anti-SLAPP statute applies in federal court. In Henry v. Lake Charles American Press, LLC, 566 F.3d 164 (5th Cir. 2009), the Louisiana anti-SLAPP statute applied, although the Fifth Circuit ultimately overruled the dismissal, concluding that that plaintiff had demonstrated a probability of success on the merits. The Fifth Circuit again noted that the Louisiana anti-SLAPP statute applies in federal court in Brown v. Wimberly, 477 Fed.Appx. 214, 216, (5th Cir. 2012). In recognizing the Fifth Circuit’s repeated application of the Louisiana anti-SLAPP statute, the Williams court stated:
There is no material difference between the Louisiana and Texas anti-SLAPP statutes. Consequently, anti-SLAPP statutes such as the TCPA are enforceable in federal courts sitting in diversity jurisdiction under the Erie doctrine. -Williams at *4.
Earlier federal courts have applied the TCPA or interpreted the TCPA in regards to cases sitting before them, however none have faced a timely objection to the application of the statute in federal court. Accordingly Williams is the first case in which a judge interpreted the question of whether or not the statute can be applied in federal court. See, e.g., NCDR, L.L.C. v. Mauze & Bagby, P.L.L.C., __ F.3d __, 2014 WL 941049 (5th Cir. March 11, 2014); Culbertson, et al. v. Lykos, et al., 4:12-CV-03644 (S.D. Tex. 2013); Monaco Entertainment Group, LLC v. City of El Paso, et al., 3:11-CV-00561-DB (W.D. Tex. ‒ El Paso 2012); Ascend Health Corp. v. Wells, 4:12-CV-00083-BR, 2013 WL 1010589 (E.D.N.C. Mar. 14, 2013).
Also at issue in the Williams case was the question of whether the anti-SLAPP statute could be applied to an amended compliant when the original complaint was over a year old. The court looked to the statute and noted that a “legal action” is clearly defined in the statute as, “a lawsuit, cause of action, petition, complaint, cross-claim, or counter-claim or any other judicial pleading or filing that requests legal or equitable relief.” Id. at *4, (citing TCPA § 27.001(6)). The court found that the statute “contemplates additional pleadings and additional causes of action that may arise during the progress of the case.” Id. Because the new claims related to broadcasts that didn’t occur until 2014, the statute applied.
Another objection raised by Williams was the inclusion of evidence other than “the pleadings and supporting and opposing affidavits” as described in the statute. Williams argued that the court was not allowed to consider other evidence such as a DVD of the broadcasts in question, discovery responses from earlier in the case, and public records relating to the incidents discussed in the broadcasts. The court overruled Williams’ objection, noting that under the TCPA, targeted discovery is allowed, which would result in evidence such as deposition testimony, admissions and documents produced through requests for production, and “the statute does not preclude the use of such evidence.” Id. at *5.
The court also found that it didn’t need to determine whether Williams was a public figure because KRIS’s reporting on the school districts’ continued hiring of Williams amid allegations of wrongdoing was about “health and safety, community well-being, and… the government” and therefore the TCPA applied.
Finding that the broadcasts at issue were substantially true, the court found that Williams did not satisfy his burden of showing with clear and specific evidence that the broadcasts were materially false and defamatory. The court, having earlier dismissed the claims related to the 2013 broadcasts on summary judgment, dismissed the 2014 claims and dismissed the entire case with prejudice, with instructions to the parties to schedule a hearing on costs, fees and expenses.
The lead attorney for KRIS is Laura Prather of Haynes and Boone, LLP.
Author’s note: The author of this article, Alicia Calzada, is an attorney at Haynes and Boone, LLP and provided assistance to the attorneys representing KRIS in this case.