As more states adopt anti-SLAPP legislation (i.e., Oklahoma’s passage this Spring and Nevada’s expansion of its anti-SLAPP statute last year), more federal courts must decide whether such laws create a substantive right which should be applied by the federal judiciary. In a major boost to the effectiveness of state anti-SLAPP laws, Haynes and Boone secured a precedent setting victory in federal court when the Southern District of Texas applied the newly enacted Texas anti-SLAPP, in the wake of timely filed objections, for the first time ruling it created a substantive right.
The suit arose from reports aired by KVOA Communications, d/b/a KRIS Communications (“KRIS”) in February and March, 2014 with respect to a Texas school district’s investigation into allegations that a teacher had engaged in inappropriate behavior with a student. In the course of its reporting KRIS uncovered information that the same teacher-coach had previously been arrested for telephone harassment, stalking and indecent exposure. In all, the station’s investigation uncovered more than a decade of criminal allegations against the teacher-coach, who had been permitted to move from school district to school district, keeping his license to teach and being allowed to voluntarily resign.
In the wake of KRIS’ reports, the teacher-coach filed a defamation suit seeking more than $4 million in damages from KRIS. Acting on the station’s behalf, Haynes and Boone moved to dismiss the complaint on grounds that the lawsuit had been filed out of retaliation for what KRIS broadcast and the plaintiff could not establish evidence of his claim. As such, the claim violated Texas’ anti-SLAPP law, which prohibits lawsuits brought in retaliation for an exercise of one’s right to free speech, press, association or petition and is designed to prevent malicious or frivolous lawsuits that chill these fundamental First Amendment activities.
The teacher-coach opposed KRIS’ motion asserting that the anti-SLAPP statute was a procedural rule in conflict with federal law. U.S. District Court Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the Southern District of Texas disagreed, stating that procedural features of the law “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.” In doing so, the Court granted KRIS’ motion and dismissed the teacher’s challenge to the anti-SLAPP statute. The ruling represents a significant victory for those who exercise their First Amendment rights and are sued out of retaliation for doing so in federal court.
Haynes and Boone’s Laura Prather served as lead counsel for KRIS in the action and was lead author of the Texas Anti-SLAPP statute.
The case is Christopher Williams v. Cordillera Communications, Inc., et. al., ___ F. Supp. 2d ___, 2014 WL 2611743 (S.D. Tex. 2014)