Anti-SLAPP Statute Applied to Homeowners’ Association – Related Lawsuit

In an opinion out of the 14th District Court of Appeals in Houston this month, the Texas anti-SLAPP statute (the Texas Citizen’s Participation Act) was applied to a homeowners’ association – related defamation claim.  In the case of Fitzmaurice v. Jones,  ousted board members were sued for defamation and business disparagement.  The Court held that the Texas Citizen’s Participation Act (TCPA) protected the SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) defendants from the lawsuit because it related to the “right to petition.”

Jones had assisted homeowners in the Remington Forest Subdivision Homeowners Association with a petition drive to recall board members and replace them with a new board.  Jones sued the former board members based on “negative comments . . .posted on Facebook and various misinformation spread about [her] in the community . . . and because . . . she was sued along with the new board . . . by the [association].”   The lower court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed pursuant to the TCPA protections afforded to defendants in a SLAPP suit.

The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court based upon the mandate of the TCPA that a lawsuit shall be dismissed if the defendant shows it relates to “the party’s exercise of: (1) the right of free speech; (2) the right to petition; or (3) the right of association.”  The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff had not met her burden to present “clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in question.”  The Court of Appeals pointed out that any communications made in anticipation of, or during, a lawsuit are privileged, and cannot serve as grounds for a defamation claim.  As to the Facebook comments, the Court noted that a passing reference without attached evidence of statements does not meet the plaintiff’s burden.  The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court to award statutory attorneys’ fees to the defendants, and to dismiss the suit.

The full opinion is available here.  http://caselaw.findlaw.com/tx-court-of-appeals/1646703.html