Three years ago, Texas enacted its own anti-SLAPP statute, appropriately titled the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA). Since then, many defendants have taken advantage of the TCPA‘s quick dismissal procedure when confronted with suits for defamation, business disparagement, or other claims arising out of the defendants’ exercise of their right of free speech, right to petition, and right to association. Because the statute is so new, however, many of the issues surrounding its application in Texas have not yet percolated through the appellate level, which makes the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals‘ analysis of the “commercial speech” exemption under the TCPA last week in NCDR, L.L.C., et al. v. Mauze & Bagby, P.L.L.C. particularly important.
NCDR, LLC d/b/a Kool Smiles is a national chain of dental clinics. Mauze & Bagby is a personal injury law firm in San Antonio, Texas. In 2012, the law firm began an advertising campaign seeking to represent former Kool Smiles patients in a lawsuit against the chain. As part of this campaign, M&B ran television, radio, and internet advertisements, and developed a website that strongly implied, or even accused, Kool Smiles of performing unnecessary and/or harmful dental work on children to obtain government reimbursements.
Kool Smiles sued M&B, asserting, among other claims, business disparagement, defamation, and injury to business reputation. The law firm moved to dismiss the suit under the TCPA arguing that its campaign was a protected expression of free speech. However, both the trial court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that M&B was not entitled to the protection afforded by the TCPA because its advertisements were commercial speech.
The TCPA and the Commercial Speech Exemption
The purpose of the TCPA is to protect the right of people “to petition, speak freely, associate freely, and otherwise participate in government to the maximum extent permitted by law and, at the same time, protect the rights of a person to file meritorious lawsuits for demonstrable injury.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 27.002. To achieve this, the TCPA provides that if a legal action is based on, relates to, or is in response to a party’s exercise of the right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association, the defendant may file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit within sixty days of being served with the complaint. Id. § 27.003(a). Only very limited discovery is allowed until the court rules on the motion to dismiss. Id.
The TCPA requires the court to dismiss the lawsuit if the defendant shows by a preponderance of the evidence that the legal action is based on, relates to, or is in response to the party’s exercise of the right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association. Id. § 27.005(a)–(b). In order to avoid the dismissal, the plaintiff must establish by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of each claim. Id. § 27.005(c).
The “commercial speech” exemption to the TCPA disallows this quick dismissal procedure when:
. . . a legal action [was] brought against a person primarily engaged in the business of selling or leasing goods or services, [and] the statement or conduct arises out of the sale or lease of goods, services, or an insurance product or a commercial transaction in which the intended audience is an actual or potential buyer or customer. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 27.010(b).
The Fifth Circuit’s Analysis
The Fifth Circuit looked at four cases decided by the Texas Courts of Appeals that addressed the commercial speech exemption. Two addressed whether a defendant’s action “arises out of the sale or lease of goods, services, or an insurance product.” The other two address whether the intended audience is “an actual or potential buyer or customer.” In all four cases, the courts of appeals found that the commercial speech exemption did not apply.
- In Newspaper Holdings, Inc. v. Crazy Hotel Assisted Living, Ltd., the First Court of Appeals held that the newspaper articles exposing compliance problems at Crazy Hotel and published by Newspaper Holdings did not “arise out of the sale of the goods and services” that the newspaper sold – newspapers. The commercial speech exemption, therefore, did not apply and the Court granted the newspaper’s motion to dismiss under the TCPA.
- In Pena v. Parel, the Eighth Court of Appeals held that a letter to a parole board from a client’s attorney did not arise from “the sale of goods, services or insurance product.”
- In Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Dallas, Inc. v. BH DFW, Inc. and Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Dallas, Inc. v. John Moore Servs., decided by the Fifth and First Courts of Appeals respectively, the low business ratings doled out by the BBB to plaintiffs were found not to constitute “commercial speech” under the TCPA because they were intended for the general public, not for businesses who sought accreditation from BBB and who were BBB’s customers.
After analyzing the above-listed cases, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this case was different and that M&B’s statements made in the advertising materials constituted commercial speech because they: (1) arose out of the sale of M&B’s legal services, and (2) were intended for M&B’s potential customers – people who had used Kool Smiles’ services and who wanted to file a lawsuit against them.
The Texas Citizens Participation Act is still very new and the case law interpreting the statute is still developing. However, the NCDR decision strongly suggests that any business advertisements directed at the current or potential clients are not protected by the TCPA. Thus, a business whose advertisements contains negative statements about another business or individual should consider the possibility that it will not be able to use the TCPA to quickly dismiss a defamation or a business disparagement lawsuit arising out of such statements if one is filed.
For more information regarding defamation and business disparagement claims in Texas, contact Leiza Dolghih.
 While the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals‘ analysis of the TCPA is not binding on the Texas state courts per se, it is instructive since the Court must “interpret the state statute the way the state supreme court would, based on prior precedent, legislation, and relevant commentary.” Since the Texas Supreme Court has not yet interpreted the TCPA, the Fifth Circuit‘s analysis of the “commercial speech” exemption is the next best thing.