The Austin Court of Appeals recently considered how the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) applies to a Rule 202 petition for pre-suit discovery in a case involving anonymous online speech. The TCPA requires a court to dismiss a legal action when a movant shows the action relates to the movant’s exercise of free speech rights. Rule 202 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure permits a person to petition a court for an order authorizing depositions before a suit is filed in order to investigate a potential claim or suit. The Austin appellate court was called upon to answer the question of how these two requirements coexist.
In In re Chris Elliott, No. 03-16-00231-CV (Tex. App—Austin Oct. 7, 2016), PumpStopper.com, which is registered to Chris Elliott, published an article reporting negatively about MagneGas, a Delaware technology company. MagneGas filed a Rule 202 Petition and a Motion to Compel Elliott’s deposition to investigate a potential claim against “the authors, publishers, and distributors” of The Pump Stopper, who MagneGas alleged made false and misleading claims about the company.
John Doe 1 (“Doe”), who identified himself as an author, publisher and/or distributor who utilizes the website, filed a TCPA motion to dismiss the Rule 202 petition. Doe argued the Rule 202 petition related to Doe’s exercise of his right to free speech and the rights of free speech of other potential defendants.
After a brief non-evidentiary hearing, the trial court ordered Elliott’s deposition. Elliott then filed a writ of mandamus with the Austin Court of Appeals and sought emergency relief.
The court of appeals concluded that Doe’s TCPA motion to dismiss was sufficient to invoke the TCPA and to stay discovery. The court held that the TCPA’s definition of “legal action” is broad and encompasses a Rule 202 petition, as it includes “a lawsuit, cause of action, petition, complaint, cross-claim, or counterclaim or any other judicial pleading or filing that requests legal or equitable relief.” The court noted that the TCPA’s language specifically states that although the court may allow specified and limited discovery relevant to the TCPA motion to dismiss on a showing of good cause, otherwise all discovery is suspended until the court has ruled on the motion to dismiss. Because the district court’s order allowing Elliott’s deposition was not the specified and limited discovery contemplated by the TCPA, the appellate court held that the district court had abused its discretion by permitting the deposition before ruling on Doe’s TCPA motion to dismiss.
In re Chris Elliott, No. 03-16-00231-CV (Tex. App.–Austin Oct. 7, 2016).