Seyfarth Synopsis: The Texas Supreme Court throws out a former employee’s defamation suit under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, finding that communications about his alleged failure to measure a petroleum storage tank were made in connection with a matter of public concern.
Travis Coleman was a terminal technician formerly employed by ExxonMobil Pipeline Company (“EMPCo”). He was fired after his former supervisors accused him of falsifying a report on the storage level of a petroleum storage tank that he allegedly failed to properly measure but claimed to have accurately recorded.
In the wake of his termination, Coleman sued EMPCo and two former supervisors for defamation, alleging that the statements made by his supervisors about the circumstances that led to his discharge were untrue. The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that the Texas Citizens Participation Act (the “TCPA”)—a state law enacted with the aim to restrict strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP suits—applied to Coleman’s suit.
The trial court denied the motion, and the defendants appealed. The court of appeals affirmed, ruling that EMPCo did not meet its burden to show that the TCPA applied to Coleman’s suit because the communications between EMPCo employees were related to Coleman’s job performance and had only a “tangential relationship to health, safety, environmental, and economic concerns.”
The Texas Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that EMPCo successfully established TCPA applicability. Relying in large part on its 2015 decision in Lippincott v. Whisenhunt—where the Court held that communications concerning a doctor’s performance need not be made publicly to be deemed a matter of public concern and therefore receive TCPA protection—the Court noted that the statements among EMPCo employees, although private, involved a matter of public concern, namely public safety, as Coleman’s alleged failure to properly test the storage tank could result in the spillage of hazardous, flammable chemicals.
Furthermore, as the Supreme Court observed, it is not necessary under the TCPA that statements specifically mention, or bear more than a tangential or remote relationship to, health, safety, environmental, or economic concerns as a precondition to TCPA applicability. Instead, the TCPA demands only that the defendant’s statements are made “in connection with issues related to health, safety, environmental, economic and other identified matters of public concern chosen by the Legislature.” The court of appeals’ decision requiring “something more” thus erroneously narrowed the scope of the TCPA and ran counter to the plain and unambiguous language of the TCPA.