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Rich v. Range Resources Corp.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

November 22, 2017

ALISA RICH APPELLANT
v.
RANGE RESOURCES CORPORATION AND RANGE PRODUCTION COMPANY APPELLEES

         FROM THE 43RD DISTRICT COURT OF PARKER COUNTY TRIAL COURT NO. CV-11-0798

          PANEL: SUDDERTH, C.J.; KERR and PITTMAN, JJ.

          OPINION

          MARK T. PITTMAN, JUSTICE

         This is an appeal from the trial court's denial of sanctions under section 27.009 of the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA). See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 27.009 (West 2015). Because the denial was error, but not harmful error, we affirm.

          I. BACKGROUND

         In an original proceeding, this court held that the trial court abused its discretion by denying Appellant Alisa Rich's motion under the TCPA to dismiss the claims brought against her by Appellees Range Resources Corporation and Range Production Company (collectively, Range), and we ordered the trial court to dismiss the claims. See In re Lipsky, 411 S.W.3d 530, 554 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2013, orig. proceeding), mand. denied, 460 S.W.3d 579, 597 (Tex. 2015). Range sought mandamus relief in the Supreme Court of Texas, which denied Range's petition. Lipsky, 460 S.W.3d at 597.

         After the case was remanded to the trial court, it dismissed Range's claims against Rich and awarded Rich $470, 012.41 in attorney's fees pursuant to the TCPA. In addition to attorney's fees, Rich filed a motion for sanctions requesting the imposition of sanctions against Range under section 27.009(a)(2). She originally sought $3 million in sanctions but later filed an amended motion seeking $30 million in sanctions against Range. In support of her motion for sanctions, she provided the trial court with (1) the opinions of this court and of the Supreme Court of Texas in the mandamus proceedings; (2) Range Resources Corporation's Form 10-Ks from December 2014 and December 2015 showing Range's reported net income; (3) the affidavit of Range's senior vice president that Range had used as support for its claim for $3 million in damages against Rich; (4) Range's response to her motion for attorney's fees; (5) Range's response to her motion for sanctions; (6) a news release about Range's merger with another corporation; (7) Range Resources Corporation's Schedule 14A Proxy Statement from April 2016; and (8) the court reporter's record from the original hearing on her motion to dismiss and for attorney's fees.

         At the start of the hearing on the motion for sanctions, the trial court stated that the hearing would address not only the proper amount of sanctions but also whether Rich was entitled to sanctions at all. Rich's attorney argued that the award of sanctions against Range was mandatory under section 27.009. In response, Range argued the merits of its claims that had been dismissed and asserted that there was no evidence that the imposition of sanctions would deter "anything because Range has no need to be deterred from filing similar lawsuits. It hasn't done so." Range further contended that if the trial court concluded that sanctions were required to be imposed under the TCPA, the trial court should award only a nominal amount to Rich.

         After the hearing, the trial court denied Rich's motion for sanctions in its entirety. The trial court did not file findings of fact or conclusions of law, and the trial court's judgment therefore implies all findings of fact necessary to support it. See Rosemond v. Al-Lahiq, 331 S.W.3d 764, 766-67 (Tex. 2011); Wood v. Tex. Dep't of Pub. Safety, 331 S.W.3d 78, 79 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2010, no pet.). The only issue in this appeal is whether the trial court abused its discretion by denying Rich's motion for sanctions upon the dismissal of Range's legal action under the TCPA.

          II. DISCUSSION

         A. The Award of Sanctions is Mandatory Under Section 27.009.

         First of all, this court has previously held that when a legal action is dismissed under the TCPA, an award of sanctions against the party who brought the action is mandatory under section 27.009.[1] Rauhauser v. McGibney, 508 S.W.3d 377, 389 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2014, no pet.), disapproved of on other grounds by Hersh v. Tatum, 526 S.W.3d 462, 468 (Tex. 2017). Accordingly, the trial court abused its discretion by denying Rich's motion for sanctions in its entirety. See In re Dep't of Family & Protective Servs., 273 S.W.3d 637, 642-43 (Tex. 2009) (stating that a trial court has no discretion in determining what the law is and that if the trial court fails to properly interpret the law, it abuses its discretion); Sullivan v. Abraham, 472 S.W.3d 677, 683 (Tex. App.-Amarillo 2014) ("Refusing to perform a mandatory duty constitutes an abuse of discretion."), rev'd on other grounds, 488 S.W.3d 294 (Tex. 2016). However, we also held in Rauhauser that "the trial court possesses discretion to determine the sanction amount that is required to deter the party who brought the legal action from bringing similar actions in the future." 508 S.W.3d at 389; see also Am. Heritage Capital, LP v. Gonzalez, 436 S.W.3d 865, 881 (Tex. App.- Dallas 2014, no pet.) (stating that it was the trial judge's prerogative to weigh the evidence "in determining, as a matter of discretion, how large the sanction needed to be to accomplish its statutory purpose"), disapproved of on other grounds by Hersh, 526 S.W.3d at 468.

         A trial court abuses its discretion if the court acts without reference to any guiding rules or principles, that is, if the act is arbitrary or unreasonable. Low v. Henry, 221 S.W.3d 609, 614 (Tex. 2007); Cire v. Cummings, 134 S.W.3d 835, 838-39 (Tex. 2004). An appellate court cannot conclude that a trial court abused its discretion merely because the appellate court would have ruled differently in the same circumstances. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Robinson, 923 S.W.2d 549, 558 (Tex. 1995); see also Low, 221 S.W.3d at 620. An abuse of discretion does not occur when the trial court bases its decision on conflicting evidence and some evidence of substantive and probative character supports its decision. Unifund CCR Partners v. Villa, 299 S.W.3d 92, 97 (Tex. 2009); Butnaru v. Ford Motor Co., 84 S.W.3d 198, 211 (Tex. 2002) (op. on reh'g).

         At the hearing on Rich's motion for sanctions, Range argued that it had no need to be deterred from filing future TCPA claims because it has not filed any other defamation lawsuits against people who had left negative comments about Range on news articles posted online. The trial court found Range's arguments persuasive, and its order contains an implied finding that Range did not need deterring from filing similar actions in the future. See Wood, 331 S.W.3d at 79; see also Kinney v. BCG Attorney Search, Inc., No. 03-12-00579-CV, 2014 WL 1432012, at *11 (Tex. App.-Austin Apr. 11, 2014, pet. denied) ...


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