Texas SC allows food stamp recipient to pursue defamation case over magazine feature

By Shanice Harris | Mar 30, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (Legal Newsline) – The Texas Supreme Court ruled March 17 to allow a defamation lawsuit to continue, but it also said a lower appeals court shouldn't have used Wikipedia as an authority.

The court affirmed the dismissal of other counts of the lawsuit but ruled the plaintiff met her burden to allege defamation.

Janay Bender Rosenthal accused D Magazine of defamation and other counts after a March 2013 article in which Rosenthal was the subject. The article, titled "The Park Cities Welfare Queen," accused Rosenthal of committing welfare fraud - an allegation she says was not accurately reported.

The article reported that the plaintiff had found a way to scam the system into giving her food stamps and she was living well because of it. The article continued to explain how she pulled the alleged crime off and also included a mug shot from an unrelated arrest.

The magazine attributed the entire story to an anonymous Park Cities parent.

D Magazine never reached out to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to confirm the information. Editor Tim Rogers tried reaching out the Rosenthal to ask for her comments, but she never followed up.

After the article came out, Rosenthal contacted the Commission to ask if she committed any wrongdoing. It investigated and told her they did not find any evidence of fraud. She subsequently filed the lawsuit soon after. 

She sued for defamation and claims under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act and the Identify Theft Enforcement and Protection Act.

In response to the lawsuit, D Magazine tried to get the case dismissed under the Texas Citizens Participation Act. The trial court denied the magazine’s motion as a defamation case, but granted the other counts. The court of appeals also agreed in this ruling.

The Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act represents what is commonly known as the anti-SLAPP law. The law protects writers, reporters and bloggers from companies and other parties from suing for defamation. The law is applied on a case-by-case basis.

But both the anti-SLAPP law and the U.S. Constitution do not unlimitedly protect and do not prevent individuals from being sued if a person truly feels injured by false or defamatory speech.

The Supreme Court also ruled that the Court of Appeals' reliance on Wikipedia led to an unduly narrow interpretation of the article’s title that, in turn, impacted the court’s analysis of the plaintiff’s defamation claim.

But, in the case of the second claim, the Supreme Court stated that any reasonable person could read the article as a whole and see that it accused Rosenthal of fraudulently obtaining public benefits. Rosenthal presented ample evidence that proved defamation and supported a prima facie case.

The Supreme Court agreed with the original trial court and court of appeals ruling that a dismissal under the Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act is not warranted. 

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