Ninth District appellate judges have stopped a defamation suit that Beaumont lawyer John Morgan filed against his former wife’s lawyer.
On Oct. 29, the judges held that the Texas Citizen’s Participation Act protected Houston lawyer Sheryl Johnson-Todd from Morgan’s suit.
The law, from 2011, prohibits lawsuits in retaliation for exercise of free speech and free association.
Justice Hollis Horton wrote, “When an individual attempts to manipulate the legal system to vindicate their rights, the act threatens a core value of democracy – the right to petition the government to address a grievance.”
Chief Justice Steve McKeithen and Justice Charles Kreger concurred.
They reversed Jefferson County Court at Law Judge Gerald Eddins, who didn’t deny a motion to dismiss the suit but simply let the motion expire.
Morgan and his former wife, whose name does not appear in the decision, divorced in 2008.
The divorce reached the appellate court, and subsequent disputes over their children reached the appellate court four times.
At some point Morgan faced a criminal charge of making a false report to police.
The court at law judge on the case, Langston Adams, entered an order against disclosure of the case record.
Last December, he amended the order to apply specifically to certain persons including Johnson-Todd.
Also in December, Morgan sued Johnson-Todd.
Representing himself, he alleged that she violated Adams’s orders.
Morgan wrote that she published a timeline on his criminal case in a hearing before a family law court, in order to falsely impress the judge.
He wrote that the criminal charge was resolved in his favor after he completed requirements for community supervision.
He moved for a temporary order restraining Johnson-Todd from filing, publishing or distributing any documents from his criminal case, and Eddins granted it.
Johnson-Todd appealed, and the Ninth District declared the order void.
Morgan amended his complaint, and Johnson-Todd moved to dismiss it.
Eddins held a hearing on the motion in April, and took it under advisement.
After 30 days without a decision, a time limit in the Texas Citizen’s Participation Act overruled the motion by operation of law.
On appeal, Johnson-Todd prevailed.
Horton wrote that the Act protects individuals in litigation from retaliation for airing their grievances in court.
He wrote that absolute privilege over judicial communications provided a valid defense with respect to all Morgan’s claims.
“Under the judicial communications privilege, statements made in the due course of judicial proceedings cannot serve as the basis of civil actions for libel or slander, regardless of the negligence or malice with which the statements may have been made,” Horton wrote.
“This privilege extends to statements made by the judges, jurors, counsel, parties, or witnesses, and the privilege attaches to all aspects of the proceedings, including statements that are made in open court, pretrial hearings, depositions, affidavits, and any of the pleadings or other papers filed in a case.”
He wrote that the Act protects the rights of all persons to petition.
In that context, he wrote, “we believe it was certainly intended to protect those persons employed in an agency relationship with parties involved in litigation from becoming the objects of retaliation for providing the courts with information relevant to a pending suit.”
“The attorney client relationship is an agency relationship, and an attorney’s actions within the scope of the agency relationship are fully attributable to the client,” Horton wrote.
Jeffrey Dorrell of Houston represented Johnson-Todd.