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Lan Nguyen v. Dangelas

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

November 14, 2019

HELEN HUONG LAN NGUYEN A/K/A MRS. VAN BINH, Appellant
v.
MAYA DANGELAS, AS NEXT FRIEND OF HER MINOR CHILD, K.D., Appellee

          On Appeal from the 127th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2018-56878

          Panel consists of Justices Lloyd, Goodman, and Landau.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Sarah Beth Landau Justice

         Maya Dangelas and her adoptive daughter, K.T., [1] are both originally from Vietnam. They now live in Houston and share strong ties with the local Vietnamese refugee community. For a time, Maya was close friends with Helen Nguyen, who also lives in Houston. After Maya and Helen had a falling out, Maya was told that Helen was making alarming, disparaging comments about Maya's daughter to others in the Vietnamese refugee community. Maya, as next friend of K.T., sued Helen for defamation. Helen moved for dismissal of Maya's suit under the Texas Citizens Participation Act.[2] The trial court denied Helen's dismissal motion, and Helen appealed.

         In three issues, Helen contends the trial court erred in denying her TCPA motion. We affirm.

         Background

         In 2007, while Maya was still living in Vietnam, Maya's brother and his girlfriend had a child. The girlfriend chose to place the child for adoption. Maya stepped in and agreed to adopt the child. Maya's adoption of K.T.-who hereafter will be referred to as Kelly-became final in 2010. Maya and Kelly left Vietnam and moved to Houston in 2012.

         Beginning around 2016, Kelly began taking classes at the Van Binh Self-Defense Academy, which was owned by Maya's good friend, Helen, and Helen's husband.

         In mid-2018, Maya and Helen had a falling out. A couple months later, two mutual friends, Huy Luong and Lan Luong, were at a restaurant with Helen when Helen began discussing Kelly. According to their declarations, which are part of the appellate record, Helen told Huy and Lan at the restaurant that Kelly is the "bastard child" of the former president of Vietnam, Truong Tan Sang. Huy and Lan state that Helen's accusation carries "significant weight" in the Vietnamese refugee community because Vietnamese refugees experienced the cruelty of the Viet Cong party when it took over their country and because many of the refugees lost family members in the takeover.

         Huy and Lan state that it was "apparent" Helen "intended to disparage" Kelly by making such a claim. They explain: "Asserting that [Kelly] is the illegitimate child of a powerful member of the Viet Cong party is particularly harmful in our community. That invites hatred. The child will be subject to threats and violence."

         According to Maya, Helen's alarming accusations were not limited to dinner conversation. Maya alleges that Helen conspired with others to cause certain Facebook posts to appear online, which also call Kelly the "bastard child" of Truong Tan Sang and call Maya the "Number One Prostitute" of Vietnam.[3]

         Maya contends Helen's statements were false. The appellate record includes reports of DNA testing performed in 2010 and again in 2018, which establish that Maya's brother[4] and Kelly are biologically related.

         Maya further contends that Helen's statements significantly damaged Kelly. Maya's affidavit describes the damage Helen's statement allegedly caused:

K.D. was harmed by Mrs. Nguyen's false statements. . . . Mrs. Nguyen's statements have caused a significant disruption to K.D.'s daily life that is interfering with her education and enjoyment of life. K.D. has not been able to go to the Vietnamese school to study Vietnamese. K.D. cannot go to the Vietnamese Temple to worship. K.D. cannot go to the Vietnamese community to learn about her heritage and cultural background. She cannot go to the Vietnamese market. She cannot go to the normal places she goes in her daily life. I have had to take K.D. out of the activities she enjoys so that she will not be exposed to threats.

         Maya, as next friend of Kelly, sued Helen for defamation. She seeks damages on Kelly's behalf, injunctive relief, and a retraction of Helen's false statements about Kelly. Helen moved to dismiss the defamation suit under the summary dismissal procedures found in the Texas Citizens Participation Act. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 27.001-.011.

         The TCPA contains a mechanism for limited discovery. Id. § 27.006(b). Maya invoked that provision and, over Helen's objection, the trial court allowed Maya to depose Helen. Portions of the deposition transcript are in the record.

         At the deposition, Helen was asked about Kelly's parentage. Helen testified she knows only that Kelly is Maya's daughter. Helen stated that she has no other knowledge about Kelly's biological parents. She denied ever having a conversation about Kelly being the daughter of the former president of Vietnam. Helen testified that she has no interest in the topic of Kelly's parentage-describing the issue as "not important" and "nothing at all," because it is Kelly's "private life." In other words, Helen denied ever discussing Kelly's parentage, directly contradicting Huy's and Lan's declarations.

         Following Helen's deposition, the trial court denied Helen's TCPA dismissal motion, and Helen appeals. See id. § 51.014(a)(4) (permitting interlocutory appeal of denial of TCPA motion).

         Texas Citizens Participation Act

         The TCPA's purpose is to protect "citizens who 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). It does so by creating a "set of procedural mechanisms through which a litigant may require, by motion, a threshold testing of the merits of legal proceedings or filings that are deemed to implicate the expressive interests protected by the statute, with the remedies of expedited dismissal, cost-shifting, and sanctions for any found wanting." Serafine v.Blunt, 466 S.W.3d 352, 369 (Tex App-Austin 2015, no pet) (Pemberton, J, concurring); see Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 27.003-.009.[5]

         A. TCPA's dismissal provision and relevant statutory definitions

         Section 27.003 of the TCPA provides that a party may file a motion to dismiss a legal action that "is based on, relates to, or is in response to [that] party's exercise of" one of three rights: free speech, petition, or association. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.003(a). The Legislature defined "legal action" as "a lawsuit, cause of action, petition, complaint, cross-claim, or counterclaim or any other judicial pleading or filing that requests legal or equitable relief." Id. § 27.001(6). The Legislature also statutorily defined the three sets of rights protected by TCPA summary-dismissal procedures. Id. § 27.001(3) (defining "exercise of the right of free speech" as "a communication made in connection with a matter of public concern"); § 27.001(2) (defining "exercise of the right of association" as "a communication between individuals who join together to collectively express, promote, pursue, or defend common interests"); § 27.001(4) (defining "exercise of the right to petition").

          B.TCPA's ...


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