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Walker v. Hartman

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont

March 30, 2017

LAYNE WALKER, Appellant
v.
STEPHEN HARTMAN, Appellee

          Submitted on January 27, 2017

          On Appeal from the 58th District Court Jefferson County, Texas Trial Cause No. A-198, 246

          Before McKeithen, C.J., Kreger and Horton, JJ.

          OPINION

          STEVE McKEITHEN Chief Justice

         Appellant Layne Walker appeals the trial court's denial of his motion to dismiss appellee Stephen Hartman's lawsuit[1] against him pursuant to the Texas Citizens' Participation Act ("TCPA"). See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 27.001-.011 (West 2015), § 51.014(a)(12) (West Supp. 2016) (providing for an interlocutory appeal of the denial of a motion to dismiss filed under section 27.003 of the TCPA). In five appellate issues, Walker argues that: (1) Hartman's legal action was based on, related to, or in response to Walker's exercise of his right of free speech or to petition; (2) Walker's motion to dismiss under the TCPA was timely; (3) Hartman's nonsuit of his defamation claims after Walker moved to dismiss did not prevent the trial court from granting relief under the TCPA; (4) Walker showed each element of one or more defenses to Hartman's claims by a preponderance of the evidence; and (5) Hartman did not marshal clear and specific evidence of a prima facie case for each essential element of his claims. We affirm the trial court's judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         On May 28, 2013, Hartman, a licensed investigator and licensed process server employed by Klein Investigations and Consulting, entered the courtroom of the 252nd District Court while Walker, the former judge of said court, was presiding. Hartman pleaded that he approached the bar in the courtroom, but did not cross it, and after motioning for the bailiff, Deputy Lewis, to come toward him, he whispered to Lewis that he needed to serve Walker with a summons.[2] According to Hartman, Lewis walked to Deputy Broussard, and Broussard "rushed toward Hartman and immediately began pushing Hartman to the exit door, stating Hartman needed to 'leave or go under arrest.'" According to Hartman's petition, he did not attempt to serve Walker in court.

         Hartman pleaded that although he identified himself as a licensed process server and did nothing disruptive, Deputies Lewis and Broussard, as well as Deputy Barker, placed Hartman under arrest and confiscated his personal property, which included, among other things, his iPhone and a video recording pen that had captured the events. Hartman also pleaded that the officers used excessive force during his arrest and detained him for an excessively long period of time. Hartman alleged that Walker knew in advance that Hartman intended to attempt to serve him and that Walker had instructed Deputies Lewis, Broussard, and Barker to arrest Hartman when Hartman stated his intention to serve the summons.

         According to Hartman's petition, the three deputies subsequently allowed Hartman to serve the summons on Walker in the jury room. Hartman pleaded that he was told he would be charged with interfering with public duties and disrupting a public meeting, and he alleged that Deputies Broussard, Barker, and Lewis falsified probable cause affidavits to support those charges. In addition, Hartman alleged that Walker and other defendants, working together, replaced Hartman's recording pen with a pocket screwdriver "as part of their scheme to hide Hartman's recording pen and its evidence[.]" Hartman also alleged that Walker's court coordinator "maliciously sought to revoke Hartman's professional licenses[]" by filing formal complaints with the Texas Department of Public Safety Private Security Bureau, the Texas Process Server Review Board, and the Texas Association of Licensed Investigators (a trade association).[3] As a result of the complaints being filed, Hartman's licenses as a private investigator, personal protection officer, and commissioned security guard were suspended for approximately three months until his criminal case was dismissed.

         Hartman also pleaded that "Walker, with the participation by overt acts by all other Defendants[, ] . . . prosecuted a malicious, illegal criminal case against Hartman[.]" Hartman alleged that Walker and other defendants "illegally purported to, or pretended to, hire Joe Alford to serve as a District Attorney Pro Tem (DAPT), and arranged for illegal payment of Joe Alford out of the Texas Indigent Defense Fund (IDF)."

          According to Hartman, Walker instructed Broussard to take Hartman's recording pen home, where Broussard downloaded it onto a CD and attempted to delete the pen's contents.[4] According to Hartman, Walker and other defendants instructed the persons who were present in the courtroom during the incident "to provide perjured affidavits and one false witness statement[] to support Hartman's arrest and prosecution[]" and instructed sheriff's deputies to prepare falsified arrest reports and probable cause affidavits. Hartman's petition alleged that the recording pen contained evidence proving that the probable cause arrest affidavits and reports, as well as the affidavits of witnesses, were "perjured and materially false[.]" Hartman further alleged that the defendants who participated in a "pattern of denials and obfuscations about the existence of the recording pen and its evidence" acted on the personal orders of Walker and other defendants.

         Hartman pleaded that the individual defendants all "acted in a civil conspiracy to perpetrate Texas torts against Hartman, through collective misconduct, with a unity of purpose and goals, in order to damage Hartman." According to Hartman's petition, the goals of the conspiracy were to maliciously and illegally prosecute Hartman, to destroy Hartman's career, and to maliciously inflict "as much emotional and psychological harm and damage on Hartman as possible." Hartman pleaded that Walker and other defendants caused Hartman to be maliciously prosecuted, and he pleaded that he was suing all of the defendants, "jointly and severally, for the tort of malicious prosecution."[5]

         Hartman further pleaded that he was suing Walker in his individual capacity "because Walker was not only a co-conspirator, but also Walker is ultimately the instigator of the civil conspiracy at issue in this case." Hartman pleaded that Walker's tortious misconduct stemmed from "non-judicial actions outside the scope of his jurisdiction as a judge[]" and that "Walker's misconduct was not based on his adjudication of any case lawfully assigned to his court." Additionally, Hartman pleaded that he was not a party or a witness to any case pending in Walker's court, and Hartman asserted that Walker's non-judicial acts were not protected by judicial immunity. According to Hartman, Walker's misconduct did not involve normal judicial functions; all of Walker's alleged misconduct, except for Walker's order to Broussard to arrest Hartman, occurred outside the courtroom; Walker's alleged misconduct did not occur in a case Walker was adjudicating; and Hartman did not attempt to visit Walker in Walker's official capacity.

          Hartman pleaded that he sought "joint and several liability against all of the Defendants . . . because each action of each Defendant, as well as each tort perpetrated by each Defendant, was an overt act in furtherance of the civil conspiracy to maliciously prosecute Hartman and to destroy his career."[6] In addition, Hartman sought imposition of punitive damages "against all the Defendants jointly and severally under Texas law[.]" Hartman filed numerous exhibits with the trial court, including, among other things, two affidavits signed by Hartman (one from the complaint he filed against Walker with the Judicial Conduct Commission and a second affidavit signed on May 28, 2013), the court reporter's transcript of the proceedings taking place in the courtroom when the incident that led to Hartman's arrest occurred, [7] and testimony taken before one of the boards with which Walker filed a complaint against Hartman. Our review of the appellate record does not reveal any affidavits from Walker.

         WALKER'S MOTION TO DISMISS UNDER THE TCPA

         Walker filed a motion to dismiss Hartman's entire case under the TCPA. Referring to the allegations in Hartman's original petition, Walker asserted that Hartman had sued him for "defamation and related torts." Walker argued that the trial court should dismiss Hartman's claims regarding Walker's filing of complaints with the Texas Department of Public Safety Private Security Bureau, the Texas Process Server Review Board, and the Texas Association of Licensed Investigators "because they are based on, related to, or in response to Walker's exercise of the right to petition[, ]" and the services provided by process servers are related to community well-being. Walker also complained in his motion to dismiss that Hartman had filed a motion to strike allegedly objectionable, defamatory, and ad hominem portions of Walker's pleadings. According to Walker, Hartman's motion to strike constituted a "legal action" as defined by the TCPA. Walker further asserted that all ...


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