The 14th Court of Appeals found Thursday that a trial judge in Houston correctly tossed a contractor’s “frivolous” attempts to use Texas’s anti-SLAPP law to delay a pending trial.
Under the ruling by a three-justice panel of the appellate court, the case – a civil dispute between a commercial developer, Mid-Main Properties, and a construction company, Patriot Contracting, over the construction of four apartment towers in Houston – heads back to District Judge Rabeea Sultan Collier for trial.
Mid-Main and Patriot Contracting sued one another in 2017. Mid-Main claimed, among other contentions, that Patriot breached its contract by performing substandard work, then abandoning the apartment project. Patriot, which was fired by Mid-Main, filed a mechanic’s lien claiming the developer refused to pay money Patriot was owed.
The case was set for trial last November when Patriot filed a dismissal motion under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, informally known as the state’s anti-SLAPP law. Judge Collier denied the motion, calling it frivolous and a stall tactic. The appellate court affirmed.
“We hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in determining the motion was frivolous,” Justice Kevin Jewel wrote for the panel, which also included Justices Frances Bourliot and Margaret Poissant.
SLAPP, an acronym for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” describes an action filed to stop someone from exercising his or her First Amendment right to speak. The statute, enacted in 2011, was designed to protect people from such legal intimidation. But legal experts say the act in practice is often abused as the basis for filings intended solely to hamper pending suits from ever proceeding to trial.
“This case is a poster child for the growing criticism that lawyers are using interlocutory appeals to simply delay cases,” said Kelsi Stayart White of AZA, who represented Mid-Main in the appeal.
“The anti-SLAPP law is designed to keep people from using the courts to keep a party from speaking freely about a matter of public concern. Instead, some lawyers are trying to use it to stall a case they’d rather not face.”
Patriot’s lead attorney in the trial court, Clifford L. Harrison from the Houston office of Munsch Hardt, said in a written statement: “After receiving the Court of Appeals’ opinion today, we are conferring with our clients and evaluating next steps.”
Patriot Contracting and its owner, Stephen J. Friedman, were represented in the appeal by Dale Wainwright, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, and Justin Bernstein, both from the Austin office of Greenberg Traurig.