Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourth District, San Antonio
Dr. Hector FARIAS and Voices in Democratic Action (VIDA), Appellants
Eduardo A. GARZA and Uni-Trade Forwarding, L.C., Appellees
Petition for review filed by, 05/06/2014.
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
From the 49th Judicial District Court, Webb County, Texas. Trial Court No. 2012-CVT-001496-D1. Honorable Fred Shannon, Judge Presiding.
For APPELLANT: Baldemar Garcia, Jr., Person, Whitworth, Borchers & Morales, L.L.P., Laredo, TX; Jeffrey Jay Phillips, Andrew Ward, Houston, TX; Ricardo E. De Anda, De Anda Law Firm, P.C., Laredo, TX.
For APPELLEE: Adolfo Campero, Jr., Campero & Becerra, P.C., Laredo, TX; Ruth G. Malinas, Plunkett & Griesenbeck, Inc., San Antonio, TX.
Sitting: Catherine Stone, Chief Justice, Sandee Bryan Marion, Justice, Patricia O. Alvarez, Justice.
Sandee Bryan Marion, Justice.
Appellees, Eduardo A. Garza and Uni-Trade Forwarding, L.C. (" Uni-Trade" ) (collectively, " the plaintiffs" ) filed a defamation action against appellants, Dr. Hector Farias and Voices in Democratic Action (" VIDA" ) (collectively, " the defendants" ). The defendants each filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to the Texas Citizens' Participation Act (" the Act" ). The trial court denied the motions to dismiss, and this appeal by the defendants ensued.
VIDA is a political watchdog organization and Farias is its spokesperson. Garza is a Laredo businessman and customs broker who has worked in the international trade industry for twenty-five years. Garza owns or has an ownership interest in several U.S. companies, including (1) Uni-Trade, a freight forwarder; (2) Air-Trade Laredo, LLC (" Air-Trade" ), an air cargo logistics, transportation, and customs clearing service; and (3) Garros Services, LLC (" Garros Services" ), a produce supply chain management service.
In January and August of 2011, the City of Laredo solicited proposals to lease two tracts of unused land at the Laredo International Airport. The City Council later voted unanimously to execute the leases with Uni-Trade and Air-Trade, which were the only companies to submit lease proposals. On October 11, 2011, the City announced a request for proposals " for the management, or management and operation of two refrigerated inspection facilities located within the federal import lots at the World Trade Bridge and Columbia Solidarity Bridge." Three companies submitted proposals: Garros Services, Portable Cold Solutions, and Laredo Facilitators, LLP. On November 28, 2011, the City Council voted (5 to 2) to accept the proposal submitted by Garros Services.
From November 4, 2011, when the bidding closed on the proposals for the refrigerated inspection facilities, through September 2012, Farias and VIDA were publicly critical of the facilities contract and Garza's alleged ties to Laredo political officials. These comments are the focus of Garza's defamation suit and this appeal.
APPLICATION OF THE ACT
The Texas Legislature enacted the Act " to encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of persons 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 (West Supp. 2013). To achieve these ends, the Legislature provided that if a legal action is brought in response to a person's exercise of certain constitutional rights, that person may move to dismiss
the action. Id. § 27.003(a). The movant bears the initial burden to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the action " is based on, relates to, or is in response to the [movant's] exercise" of certain rights, including the right of free speech. Id. § 27.005(b). Garza concedes the allegations in his lawsuit bring his defamation cause of action within the scope of the Act. Therefore, the burden shifted to Garza as the defamation-plaintiff, and the trial court was required to dismiss his legal action unless he " establishe[d] by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in question." Id. § 27.005(c). This appeal addresses whether Garza satisfied this burden.
A. Standard of Review