Freedom of Speech is Alive and Well in Texas. The Texas Citizens Participation Act Strikes Again: This time in an HOA dispute.
If you run for office these days, you probably need to have pretty thick skin. People have always “talked about” leaders, but now with the advent of community websites, neighborhood websites, and texting, information spreads like wildfire. Even local positions, like little league President or Board Member of your Homeowners Association (HOA), can become hotbeds of controversy. The information people spread should be relatively accurate (“substantially true” in legal terms), or you can be held liable for defamation of character. Spreading lies, rumors, or innuendo can get you sued – and rightfully so. However, I keep coming across cases where people get their feelings hurt over tiny things and they want to run to the courthouse to shut up their opposition; or as they see it “demand justice”- through intimidation. Said another way, they want to file “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” (SLAPP).
I just finished handling one such case where a couple of homeowners who were Board members of their local HOA took offense to people questioning their business judgment. To stop the criticism, they decided to file a lawsuit against their fellow homeowners (and the HOA, and the past Board) for “defamation”, “slander,” and for “ruining their reputation”.
We represented the homeowner that was the alleged “slanderer.” He had disagreed with the approach taken by members of the Board who decided it was best to pay off or “settle” with people who had issues with the Board rather than fight them. He wrote a strong, but professional letter to the community stating his position that he felt the Board was wasting their money and should be replaced. This letter was the basis of the “slander” claim as alleged by the Plaintiff.
Unfortunately for the Plaintiff, the letter, while direct, was simply one homeowner exercising his right of free speech to question the direction of the current Board.
For those of you who follow our blog, you might guess what happened next. First, we nicely asked them to non-suit the case and pointed out their risks. They refused to nonsuit (as I’ve found is common, “how could we be wrong?”), and instead demanded money. I consistently find it revealing when someone who “stands on principle” wants dollars in exchange for his principle. So we were then forced to ask the Judge to award our client all of his legal fees, costs, and sanctions under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (often referred to as the Anti-SLAPP statute).
We are proud to report, that once again, freedom of speech prevailed. The Ellis County Judge defended the right of Texas citizens to exercise their right of freedom of speech. The case was dismissed and the Plaintiffs were ordered to pay our client’s attorneys’ fees of over $10,000.00 plus costs. Further, the Judge ordered the Plaintiffs to pay “sanctions” to our client in the amount of $25,000 to deter the Plaintiffs from filing another lawsuit attempting to quash Freedom of Speech. Hopefully, the Plaintiffs in that suit will reconsider before trying to SLAPP someone in the future; because they learned the hard way: Texans slap back.