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Amini v. Spicewood Springs Animal Hospital, LLC

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

May 16, 2018

Nima Amini, Appellant
v.
Spicewood Springs Animal Hospital, LLC, and Dr. Barak Benaryeh, Appellees

          FROM THE COUNTY COURT AT LAW NO. 2 OF TRAVIS COUNTY NO. C-1-CV-17-010712, HONORABLE ERIC SHEPPERD, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Justices Puryear, Pemberton, and Bourland

          OPINION ON APPELLEES ' MOTION TO DISMISS APPEAL

          Bob Pemberton, Justice

         In this cause, Nima Amini has appealed from the denial, by operation of law, of his Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) motion to dismiss claims asserted against him below by appellees Spicewood Springs Animal Hospital, LLC, and Dr. Barak Benaryeh.[1] Appellees have responded with a motion to dismiss Amini's appeal. This pre-submission motion has jurisprudential novelty beyond the norm: it includes an appellate-level TCPA motion to dismiss Amini's appeal.[2] We conclude that the TCPA does not authorize that motion or relief.

         Appellees' underlying reasoning is grounded in the TCPA's expansively worded operative definitions, which in their view snare Amini's appeal within the Act's coverage as a "legal action" that "is based on, relates to, or is in response to" appellees' "exercise of the right to petition" or "exercise of the right of free speech."[3] From that premise, appellees dispute that Amini can meet what would be his burden to "establish by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element" of his appeal.[4] Appellees have further requested that this Court-an appellate court-set a hearing to decide their motion, as the TCPA would presumptively require within sixty days after service of a motion under that Act.[5]

         The linchpin of appellees' reasoning is the TCPA's definition of "legal action, " which identifies the types of judicial proceedings that are subject to dismissal motions:

a lawsuit, cause of action, petition, complaint, cross-claim, or counterclaim or any other judicial pleading or filing that requests legal or equitable relief.[6]

         An appeal, appellees insist, qualifies as a "lawsuit, " "petition, " "complaint, " and "judicial pleading or filing that requests legal or equitable relief" under what they view as the "plain" and "unambiguous" meanings of those terms. But even assuming any of these terms could conceivably bear that meaning in some abstract sense (and we do not concede this), that would not end the inquiry. We must also take account of the definition's broader context within the TCPA as a whole.[7] Doing so confirms that the Legislature intended the TCPA's dismissal mechanisms to operate against "legal actions" at the trial-court level and not against appeals.

         Among the TCPA's features that compel that conclusion are:

• an automatic stay of "all discovery in the legal action . . . until the court has ruled on the motion to dismiss"[8];
• a grant of discretion to "the court" to "allow specified and limited discovery relevant to the motion" upon "a showing of good cause"[9];
• a prescribed analysis in which "the court" is to consider whether "the party bringing the legal action establishes by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in question" and whether "the moving party establishes by a preponderance of the evidence each essential element of a valid defense to the nonmovant's claim"[10];
• a requirement that "the court, " "[i]n determining whether a legal action should be dismissed under this chapter, " "shall consider the pleadings and supporting and opposing affidavits stating the facts on which the liability or defense is based"[11];
• a further requirement that "the court, " upon request by the TCPA movant, "shall issue findings regarding whether the legal action was brought to deter or prevent the moving party from exercising constitutional rights and is ...

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