Brady v. Klentzman

Supreme Court of Texas, No. 15-0056 (January 27, 2017)

Justice Devine (Opinion linked here); Chief Justice Hecht (Dissent linked here)

First Amendment protections give rise to substantial hurdles for even a private, non-public-figure plaintiff who sues a media defendant for defamation based on a news story regarding a “matter of public concern.” The plaintiff bears the burden of proving falsity. And, to obtain anything beyond actual damages, he or she must also prove both “constitutional ‘actual malice’”—the media defendant’s “knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth”—and “traditional malice”—“intent to injure or conscious indifference to the risk of injury.” Finally, to recover even actual damages for non-economic injury, the plaintiff must adduce legally sufficient evidence “as to both the existence and the amount of such damages.” Because the trial court swung and missed on virtually all these requirements in its charge to the jury, the Supreme Court reversed a judgment for the plaintiff, Brady, and remanded for a new trial. Four justices, led by the Chief, would have gone further and rendered judgment for the defendants, arguing plaintiff failed to provide legally sufficient evidence of damages.

The Fort Bend Star published an article, written by Klentzman, about Brady and his brushes with the law. It portrayed Brady as “unruly and intoxicated” when interacting with a state trooper in one incident, and chronicled several other instances when it appeared his father, the Chief Deputy for the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s office, may have intervened on the younger Brady’s behalf, “intimidating” other officers in the process. Brady sued Klentzman and the Star for defamation. In its charge, the trial court placed the burden on the media defendants to prove that the story was substantially true and required no finding of “constitutional ‘actual malice’” as a predicate for exemplary damages. The jury found for the plaintiff and assessed $50,000 in actual damages and over $1,000,000 in exemplaries (which the trial court reduced to $230,000).

The Supreme Court first held that, because the newspaper story dealt extensively with actions of Brady’s father, the Deputy Chief, it addressed “matters of public concern” —issues “fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community.” Further, even though not all details of the article were matters of public concern, those details that were not still had a “logical nexus” to those that were, and so the entire article was to be judged by the “public concern” standard. Therefore, the Court held, the plaintiff was obliged to prove falsity; the media defendants should not have been required to prove truth.

Next, the jury’s finding of exemplary damages could not stand because the charge asked only about “traditional malice”—intent to injure—but not “constitutional ‘actual malice.’” In this context, a plaintiff must secure a jury finding of both types of malice; proving one does not relieve the plaintiff of the obligation to prove the other.

A narrow majority of the Court stopped short of rendering judgment for the media defendants. The majority acknowledged that “evidence of loss of reputation should be more than theoretical,” but noted that damages for mental anguish or lost reputation “are, by their nature, incapable of precise mathematical measure.” It found “some evidence that the newspaper article damaged [Brady’s] reputation,” enough to send the case back for a new trial.

Chief Justice Hecht, writing for a four-justice dissent, agreed with the reversal but would have rendered judgment for the media defendants because the plaintiff had not adduced sufficient evidence of the fact of injury, much less the amount of damages. “The damages issue is one of constitutional dimension,” the dissent said, and the plaintiff did not meet his burden on that issue here.