Over the last several weeks, the court has issued several opinions and grants. This blog discusses one opinion which addresses issues of particular interest.
In Lemuel David Hogan v. Stephanie Montagne Zoanni, the Texas Supreme Court considered (1) whether David Hogan (“Plaintiff”) complied with the Defamation Mitigation Act by sending a sufficient correction, clarification, or retraction request and if he did not comply, then (2) whether the consequence for an insufficient request is dismissal. This was a case of defamation by an ex-husband against his ex-wife. After their divorces, Stephanie Zoanni (“Defendant”) made various statements to authorities regarding the Plaintiff’s character. Plaintiff then sent Defendant a letter asking her to stop all defamation of his character and filed suit against her for defamation. On the first day of trial, Defendant moved for a directed verdict as to Plaintiff’s nine newly added statements and declined the trial court’s offer of an abatement. The trial court denied Defendant’s motion and included all thirteen statements, including the nine newly added statements. The jury returned a verdict for the Plaintiff. The appellate court, divided, reversed, and remanded the case holding that the Plaintiff could not recover for the nine newly added statements.
The Texas Supreme Court held that the Defamation Mitigation Act directs an abatement of claims and loss of exemplary damages instead of dismissal, and the Defendant is authorized to seek that relief. Therefore, because that remedy was available to Defendant when the Plaintiff amended his complaint, the Court held that the trial court did not err by denying her motion for directed verdict. The statute provides two avenues, either (a) allows plaintiffs to emphasize defamatory publications to enable defendants to take corrective action and mitigate injury, or (b) allows defendant to change potentially defamatory statements to mitigate damages and limit liability. Both options provide defendant with the requisite notice for plaintiff to maintain a defamation action. Although the statute encourages plaintiff to make prompt requests, it does not shield a defendant from all liability if a plaintiff merely fails to make that request or does so in a manner that is incorrect. The Court further reasons that the appellate court failed to recognize that under the Defamation Mitigation Act all roads lead to loss of exemplary damages rather than dismissal. Here, Defendant elected not to pursue a remedy of abatement and rejected the trial court’s offer to abate the suit to receive the statutory request. Therefore, she waived the abatement remedy and the opportunity to receive the statutory request. She also elected not to abate to remedy the plaintiff’s alleged failure to provide a sufficient request and therefore waived any complaints about defective notice.
Next, In Rodney Draughon v. Joycie Johnson, the Texas Supreme Court considered the burden of proving a statute of limitations defense and/or tolling of statute of limitations to obtain summary judgement. This case involved a quiet title action in which Draughon, alleging mental incapacity, was seeking to avoid an eviction from property that he inherited. Draughon alleged that due to his lack of capacity, a deed signed years earlier to his aunt, Joycie Johnson, (“Aunt”) is void. Draughon further contends that he did not have the mental capacity needed to sign the deed to Aunt and that she was aware of his incapacity, which makes her claim to the property invalid.
Aunt, based on the statute of limitations, moved for summary judgement. In response, Draughon invoked the unsound-mind tolling statute. Aunt replied that her motion for summary judgment was not a no-evidence motion, but instead presented evidence that Draughons suit was barred because the deed was recorded more than eleven years before a suit was filed – long after the four-year statute of limitations. She also objected to all Draughons affidavits. In response, Draughon argued that Aunt’s motion for summary judgement was a no-evidence motion but that she failed to argue that he had no evidence to support is mental incapacity claim. He further argued that she had a burden to produce evidence that raised a genuine issue of material fact regarding his mental capacity to sign the deed, but she failed to do so.
The trial court sustained Aunt’s objections to the affidavits and granted her motion for summary judgement. Draughon appealed, arguing that because Aunt failed to negate the tolling doctrine, the trial court erred. The appellate court affirmed. The Texas Supreme Court disagreed and held that Aunt’s motion did not conclusively negate Draughons unsound-mind tolling. The Court reasoned that a defendant moving for summary judgement on the affirmative defense of limitations bears the burden of establishing the date in which the cause of action accrued.
A plaintiff may raise an issue regarding which days after the accrual date should count toward the limitation period. Any issues that arise, affecting the calculation, becomes part of the defendant’s burden. For summary judgement, the burden is on the defendant to negate the discovery rule and the burden does not shift to the plaintiff until the defendant establishes that he or she is entitled to summary judgement and the burden at trial is immaterial. The court explains that a plaintiff’s claim that limitations was tolled falls within the issues affecting the running of limitations which the defendant has the burden. Thus, the defendant must conclusively negate any tolling doctrines asserted to obtain traditional summary judgement on statute of limitation grounds.