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Bedford v. Darin Spassoff and 6 Tool, LLC

Supreme Court of Texas

June 9, 2017

Stephen Nolan Bedford, also known as Nolan Bedford, Petitioner,
v.
Darin Spassoff and 6 Tool, LLC, formerly known as Dallas Dodgers Baseball Club LLC, d/b/a Dallas Dodgers Baseball, Respondents

         On Petition for Review from the Court of Appeals for the Second District of Texas

          PER CURIAM.

         This is a libel case brought by a business and its sole owner. We must decide if the plaintiffs established a prima facie case that could survive a motion to dismiss under the Texas Citizens Participation Act. In a split decision, the court of appeals held, among other things, that the statement in dispute was defamatory per se and therefore damages could be presumed. We disagree, holding that the statement cannot be defamatory per se and the plaintiffs failed to establish the necessary damages element by clear and specific evidence. We reverse the court of appeals' judgment as to the libel claim and remand it to the trial court for dismissal and determination of attorney's fees consistent with the Act.

         I

         Darin Spassoff is the sole owner and president of 6 Tool, LLC, formerly known as Dallas Dodgers Baseball Club, LLC, a youth baseball-instructional organization. Stephen Nolan Bedford's son was a member of the Dodgers.

         On September 12, 2014, Bedford contacted Spassoff to allege that Bedford's wife had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with Terry Cruz, the Dodgers' batting coach. A variety of heated communications between them followed the same day. That evening, Bedford sent Spassoff a copy of a Facebook post that Bedford had just made using his wife's account.[1] The post, which has been modified to redact some profile attributes, is reproduced below:

         (IMAGE OMITTED)

         More communications followed, allegedly including threats by Bedford to protest at the Dodgers' practice the next day. Within a few weeks, Spassoff had Bedford's post removed from the Dodgers' Facebook page.

         Spassoff and the Dodgers sued Bedford for libel and business disparagement. Spassoff also asserted a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Dodgers asserted a claim for tortious interference with a contract or, alternatively, a claim against Bedford and his now ex-wife for breach of contract.

         Bedford moved to dismiss all the claims under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, arguing that the plaintiffs brought the claims to prevent him from "engaging in constitutionally protected activities." The trial court denied his motion to dismiss. Bedford then filed an interlocutory appeal.

         The court of appeals, over a partial dissent, affirmed in part and reversed in part. It held that Bedford met his initial burden under the Act by demonstrating that the claims against him were premised upon statements made in connection with a matter of public concern. 485 S.W.3d 641, 646-48 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2016). But it also held that Spassoff and the Dodgers established a prima facie case for each essential element of their libel claim, and therefore the trial court did not err by denying Bedford's motion to dismiss as to that claim. Id. at 649. It further held that the trial court erred by denying Bedford's motion to dismiss with regard to the other claims (business disparagement, infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference, and breach of contract) and reversed as to those claims. Id. The court remanded the libel claim for further proceedings in accordance with the Act. Id.

         One justice dissented "from the majority's failure to reverse the trial court's judgment denying [Bedford's] motion [to] dismiss the libel claim." Id. at 650 (Walker, J., dissenting). She would have held that the Facebook post "at most, is opinionated criticism" and, even if it is defamatory, it is not defamatory per se and no damages were established. Id. at 652-53.

         II

         The scope of our review of this case is narrow. Only the libel claim is before us. The court of appeals' holding that the Act applies has not been challenged. Respondents did not file a ...


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