Everything You Need To Know About Anti-SLAPP Laws In Texas
The Texas Anti-SLAPP law is essential to protecting residents’ First Amendment rights of free speech, freedom of religion, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government. In 2011, Governor Rick Perry signed the Texas Citizens Participation Act into law, which promotes judicial economy, provides tort reform, advances First Amendment rights for all Texans, and protects small businesses.
Anti-SLAPP laws are designed to not only keep residents out of frivolous lawsuits, but they also protect small business owners from them as well. Here are a few highlights from the Texas Anti-SLAPP statute that are important to note for any small business owner or potential litigant in Texas:
- Safeguarding First Amendment Rights
Under Texas’ Anti-SLAPP law, if a party is served with a lawsuit, within 60 days a defendant may file a motion to dismiss it if the claims put forth by the plaintiff are based on, related to, or are asserted in response to the defendant’s “exercise of the right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association.” The purpose is to protect the first amendment rights of all Texans. In other words, the Texas Anti-SLAPP law empowers Texas courts to summarily dismiss lawsuits that might be filed in order to prevent or punish the exercise of speech rights. The removal of the threat of such abusive litigation as a weapon re-levels the playing field by penalizing those who might be using the courtroom to silence critics who are telling the truth.
- Texas Anti-SLAPP Language is Broad Enough to Apply Towards Employment Cases
One might assume Texas Anti-SLAPP Laws have no application other than unusual employment disputes involving private employers. In a key decision, the Texas Supreme Court demonstrated it will interpret the Texas Anti-SLAPP Law according to its plain language as broadly protecting speech, even if the speech does not implicate traditional constitutional protections.
In the case of ExxonMobil Pipeline v. Coleman, a former Exxon employee sued the company for defamation, alleging he was discharged based on a wrongful accusation he falsified records relating to the measurement of hydrocarbons in a storage tank. Exxon moved to dismiss under the Texas Anti-SLAPP Law, arguing that its communications about the falsified records implicated a matter of “public concern.”
The former employee countered that this could not be the case as the “speech” used was an internal communication regarding a personnel issue. The Supreme Court sided with Exxon on the decision.
- Motions to Dismiss Are Routinely Being Filed in Response to Unfair Competition Claims Asserted by Employers
Among the speech rights the Texas Anti-SLAPP law is designed to protect is the right to associate freely. In the case of Elite Auto Body, LLC V Autocraft Bodywerks, Inc., the Texas Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled in 2017 that the Texas Anti-SLAPP law required the dismissal of an unfair competition lawsuit filed by a former employer after two employees resigned to join a competitor. The employees in question had allegedly misappropriated trade secrets for the benefit of the competitor in the process. In reaching this conclusion, the Third Court of Appeals reasoned the employees who resigned were free to associate with each other and their new employer and their disclosure of their former employer’s alleged trade secrets was a communication between individuals who were joining together to pursue common interests, thus falling within the Texas Anti-SLAPP law’s definition of “exercise of the right of association.”
- A Motion to Dismiss Can be a Powerful Tool
Employers should be aware that the summary dismissal procedure available under the Texas Anti-SLAPP law can be a powerful tool. This is because in most cases, the filing of such motion stays the active case while the motion is pending or being appealed. In such cases where discovery is permitted while a motion is pending, the discovery must be targeted to the issues presented by the motion.
The defendant filing the motion must prove by evidence (normally, through affidavits) that the claims at issue relate to its right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association. The burden will then shift to the plaintiff to establish, by clear and specific evidence, each element of each claim asserted. If the plaintiff cannot meet this burden, the claims must be dismissed.
Houston Business Litigation Attorneys
Because of the broad application of Texas’ Anti-SLAPP statute, litigation in Texas commonly involves Anti-SLAPP motions. For plaintiff’s, getting past an Ant-SLAPP motion to dismiss can be a difficult hurdle, especially early in a case where little to no discovery has been done or permitted. For defendants, Anti-SLAPP motions can be powerful tools to end frivolous lawsuits or get parties to the negotiating table earlier. The Houston business litigation attorneys at Adair Myers Graves Stevenson have substantial experience with Anti-SLAPP motions and can help you navigate them as either a plaintiff or defendant in a lawsuit.