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Youngkin v. Hines

Supreme Court of Texas

April 27, 2018

Bill Youngkin, Petitioner,
Billy G. Hines, Jr., Respondent

          Argued Date: December 6, 2017

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


          Debra H. Lehrmann, Justice

         This case involves tort claims brought by a nonclient against an attorney, based in part on statements the attorney made in open court on behalf of his clients. We must determine whether the attorney is entitled to the claims' dismissal under the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA or Act). The court of appeals held that the Act applies to the claims against the attorney but denied his motion to dismiss. We agree that the Act applies, but we hold that the attorney is entitled to dismissal and therefore reverse the court of appeals' judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This suit stems from a legal dispute over title to 45 acres of a 285-acre tract of land in Brazos County (the Property Suit). Buetta Scott and her daughter Rajena (the Scotts) filed the Property Suit seeking a declaratory judgment that they were the rightful owners of the property because they had paid all taxes on it. Petitioner Bill Youngkin was, and still is, their attorney. Respondent Billy Hines, a defendant in the Property Suit, asserted that he had paid at least part of the taxes on the 45-acre subsection and therefore had an ownership interest in it. To greatly simplify a complicated history, both the Scotts and Hines claim to be descendants of Alex Scott, a prior owner of the disputed property. The Scotts sought a declaration of ownership to the exclusion of the hundreds of other living Alex Scott heirs. Hines, one of those other living heirs, resisted their attempt.

         During trial, at which the Scotts were not present, Youngkin negotiated a settlement agreement with Hines's attorney. Youngkin then recited the terms of the agreement into the record pursuant to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 11.[1] He announced to the court that Hines would "convey [to the Scotts] his undivided interest in the surface estate of the 285 acres but . . . retain his mineral interests in that same property." In return, Youngkin stated his clients would convey to Hines the undivided one-half interest in the 45-acre subsection they would obtain through this agreement "so that the Alex Scott heirs would have 100 percent ownership in that 45-acre [subsection]." Hines then testified to his understanding of the agreement through responses to questions from his lawyer. Hines's affirmative answers showed it was his belief that he would convey his surface interest in the 285-acre tract to the Scotts and that the Scotts would convey "[fifty] percent of their interest in the [45-acre subsection] back to the heirs of Alex Scott." At that time, he said he believed, he and his fellow Alex Scott heirs would own 100 percent of the 45-acre subsection. Hines's attorney later formalized the agreement in a letter, which Hines, Hines's attorney, and Youngkin all signed (the Scotts did not).

          Hines conveyed his surface interest in the 285-acre tract to the Scotts, who recorded the deed. Hines alleges that the Scotts, with Youngkin's assistance, then deeded their interest in the 45-acre subsection to Curtis Capps, also a client of Youngkin's, as "trustee." Capps then conveyed to Hines a partial interest in the 45-acre subsection-less than the full ownership interest that Hines apparently expected to receive pursuant to the agreement. Hines also claims that Capps, represented by Youngkin, sought a declaratory judgment that Capps personally owned the portion of the 45-acre subsection that he had not transferred to Hines.

         Hines sued the Scotts and Capps for common-law fraud and statutory fraud under Texas Business and Commerce Code chapter 27, alleging they had conspired to make misrepresentations and inducements to fraudulently deprive him of real property. Specifically, Hines alleges that the Scotts used the Rule 11 agreement to obtain his interest in the contested property with no intention of complying with their own obligations under the agreement. Hines alleges that the Scotts then coordinated with Capps to accomplish their noncompliance. He also asserted a claim against the Scotts for materially breaching the settlement agreement. Hines later added Youngkin as a defendant, claiming that he knowingly participated in the fraudulent scheme to deprive Hines of his property. In essence, Hines alleges Youngkin did the following: (1) entered the Rule 11 agreement on the Scotts' behalf knowing they had no intention to comply; (2) helped the Scotts avoid compliance with the agreement by preparing the deed used to transfer their property interest to Capps; and (3) aided Capps in his efforts to wrongfully assert ownership over a portion of the property by filing the relevant lawsuit.

         Youngkin moved to dismiss the claims against him under the TCPA. In a supporting memorandum, he argued that his reciting the Rule 11 agreement into the court record constituted the exercise of the right to petition, as defined in the Act, and served as a factual basis for Hines's fraud and conspiracy claims against him. Youngkin also raised the affirmative defense of attorney immunity, arguing it shielded him from liability to a nonclient for actions taken in the course of representing a client.[2] The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, and Youngkin filed an interlocutory appeal pursuant to Civil Practice and Remedies Code sections 27.008(b) and 51.014(a)(12). The court of appeals affirmed, holding that (1) the TCPA applied to the claims against Youngkin, (2) Hines made a prima facie case for each element of his claims, and (3) Youngkin failed to prove his attorney-immunity defense. We granted Youngkin's petition for review.


         "The [TCPA] protects citizens who [associate, ] petition or speak on matters of public concern from retaliatory lawsuits that seek to intimidate or silence them." In re Lipsky, 460 S.W.3d 579, 584 (Tex. 2015). That protection comes in the form of a special motion to dismiss, subject to expedited review, for "any suit that appears to stifle the defendant's" exercise of those rights. Id. Reviewing a TCPA motion to dismiss requires a three-step analysis. As a threshold matter, the moving party must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the TCPA properly applies to the legal action against it. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.005(b). If the moving party meets that burden, the nonmoving party must establish by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of its claim. Id. § 27.005(c). If the nonmoving party satisfies that requirement, the burden finally shifts back to the moving party to prove each essential element of any valid defenses by a preponderance of the evidence. Id. § 27.005(d).

         A. The TCPA's Applicability

         We begin our inquiry with the threshold question of whether the Act applies to the case before us. We review issues of statutory interpretation de novo. City of San Antonio v. City of Boerne, 111 S.W.3d 22, 25 (Tex. 2003). "In construing a statute, our objective is to determine and give effect to the Legislature's intent." Id.; see also Tex. Gov't Code § 312.005. The "surest guide to what lawmakers intended" is the enacted language of a statute, Entergy Gulf States, Inc. v. Summers, 282 S.W.3d 433, 463 (Tex. 2009) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted), which necessarily includes any enacted statements of policy or purpose, see, e.g., Cadena Comercial USA Corp. v. Tex. Alcoholic Beverage Comm'n, 518 S.W.3d 318, 329 (Tex. 2017); Greater Hous. P'ship v. Paxton, 468 S.W.3d 51, 62 (Tex. 2015). Moreover, legislative intent derives from an act as a whole rather than from isolated portions of it. City of San Antonio, 111 S.W.3d at 25. "[W]e construe [a] statute's words ...

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