Texas, like many other states, enacted legislation to curb meritless lawsuits whose purpose lies solely in chilling a person’s right to free speech and/or to petition his or her government. Under Texas’ Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) law, a party may file a motion to dismiss a legal action which is “based on, relates to, or is in response to [his or her] exercise of the right of free speech, right to petition, or right of association.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.003(a). The statute is designed to protect every person’s right to exercise his or her First Amendment communicative rights and does so by nipping SLAPP suits in the bud (at earliest stage of litigation) and by awarding to the party whose speech rights have been burdened by meritless litigation court costs, attorney fees, and other expenses incurred in defense of the meritless suit. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 27.002, 27.009.
A growing tactic by defendants, which includes counter-defendants and cross-defendants, is to include in an answer to a lawsuit, counterclaim, or cross-claim, a counter-claim against the plaintiff, counter-plaintiff, or cross-plaintiff for attorney fees and other damages pursuant to Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code Chapter 10 and Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 13. Chapter 10 authorize a court to sanction a party for filing a pleading or motion for an improper purpose or for filing a pleading or motion which lacks factual or legal support. Rule 13 authorizes sanctions against a party who, in bad faith or for the purpose of harassment, files any groundless document with the court.
Notably, a defendant’s Answer is likely not the proper place to request sanctions against another party; this is especially true with respect to Rule 13 sanctions, which must be requested by motion. See Tex. R. Civ. P. 13. But, often the defendant does not immediately secure a hearing on the requested sanctions. Rather, the defendant simply sits on the request for sanctions, most likely as “leverage” toward some early resolution (settlement or dismissal), or in hopes that discovery will yield some evidence of bad faith or groundlessness to later support sanctions.
This strategic use of sanctions threatens to chill a person’s right to petition his or her government, and it certainly serves as an imposition to that same right. So, the question arises, can the Anti-SLAPP statute be used as an Anti-SSAPP (Strategic Sanction Against Public Participation) measure? The answer may be yes.
Whenever the Chapter 10 or Rule 13 sanction is predicated on a petition or other pleading which requests legal or equitable relief, the right of the petitioner to petition his or her government is implicated. The Act defines “exercise of the right to petition” as “a communication in or pertaining to . . . a judicial proceeding.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.001(4)(A)(i). Since both Chapter 10 and Rule 13 arise in the context of filings in a judicial proceeding, their use falls within the Act’s definition of the exercise of the right to petition.
The Act defines “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.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.001(6). Insofar as Chapter 10 or Rule 13 sanctions are asserted via a pleading or motion, they would qualify under the first part of this definition. But the requested sanctions under Chapter 10 or Rule 13 must also constitute a form of legal or equitable relief in order to fall under Chapter 27. The defendant requests for attorney fees, court costs and related expenses as the appropriate sanction, is a request for legal relief.
Obviously, Chapter 10 and Rule 13 would not qualify as quintessential money damages, which fall under legal relief. These sanctions are imposed because of the abuse of the procedural rules or injury to legal processes. Chapter 10 and Rule 13 allow the court to sanction a party for abusing his or her right to petition, for using his or her government as a means to harm or harass a fellow citizen. These sanctions are not imposed primarily to rectify a wrong done to any other party.
However, Chapter 27 is not limited to “quintessential damages” or “quintessential claims.” Chapter 27 has a broad purpose which would reach SSAPP practices: “to encourage and safeguard the constitutional rights of persons to petition . . . and otherwise participate in government to the maximum extent permitted by law and, at the same time, protect the rights of a person to file meritorious lawsuits for demonstrable injury.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.002.
Of course, one may always, as a form of relief, move for Chapter 10 or Rule 13 sanctions in response to another’s request for Chapter 10 or Rule 13 sanctions. Unlike Chapter 10 and Rule 13, though, it is mandatory for the court to award court costs, attorney fees, and other expenses to a successful movant under Chapter 27, and the court may order sanctions against the party employing SSAPP to deter similar future conduct. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 27.009(a)(1)-(2). In this manner, Chapter 27 provides a greater remedy than Chapter 10 or Rule 13 to a party exercising her right to petition her government, when she is faced with a challenge to that right via legal procedural rules.