Texas Supreme Court Says Dallas Business’s Defamation Suit Against Anonymous Reviewers is Time-Barred

When it comes to hiring and retaining quality employees, the competition can be fierce. Long gone are the days when a potential employee checked the newspaper or local employment service for job openings. Nowadays, most individuals who are looking for work begin their job search online.

Immediate access to virtually every job available in a particular city gives job applicants plenty of choices, often requiring them to narrow down their search to just a few openings. Thus, a Dallas employer who is defamed or whose business is disparaged online could be at a substantial disadvantage when it comes to finding potential employment candidates.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in a case recently considered by the Supreme Court of Texas was a Dallas business that sought to depose representatives of the defendant jobs/recruiting website operator regarding the identity of certain individuals (who identified themselves as former or current employees of the plaintiff) whom the plaintiff alleged had posted negative statements about it online between July 2014 and June 2015. As grounds, the plaintiff contended that it wished to investigate potential defamation and business disparagement claims against the individuals who had posted the unfavorable information about it anonymously on the defendant’s website.

The defendant website operator resisted the plaintiff’s Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 202 petition to conduce a pre-suit deposition, insisting that any disclosure of the reviewers’ identities would violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The defendant also moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s petition under the Texas Citizens Participation Act. Two of the anonymous reviewers joined in this motion.

The trial court denied the motion to dismiss but limited the scope of the pre-suit deposition to two particular posts from July and October 2014 accusing the plaintiff of illegal hiring practices, violating labor laws, engaging in harassment based on race and sexual orientation, allowing illegal immigrants to work for it, and having a racist/sexist supervisor in its employ. The court of appeals affirmed, and the matter was further appealed to the state’s highest court.

The Court Decision

The Supreme Court of Texas vacated the judgments of the trial court and the court of appeals, dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction. According to the supreme court, the statute of limitations had conclusively run on the claims that the plaintiff sought to investigate under Rule 202, thus rendering its petition for pre-suit discovery moot. Under Texas law, the statute of limitations for libel is one year, and the statute of limitations for a business disparagement claim is two years. Usually, claims for defamation (libel or slander) and business disparagement accrue when the allegedly defamatory material is published or circulated. Because the plaintiff had to have known about the potential claims when it filed its petition in 2015, the supreme court reasoned that the statute of limitations against any negative review during 2014 or 2015 had already run by the time the matter reached the it (the supreme court) on appeal.

While the plaintiff in the case “lost the battle,” so to speak, there may be a larger “war” looming in the future. Perhaps with a different legal strategy, businesses who are unfairly defamed and disparaged may be able to seek damages against “anonymous reviewers” (who could very well be representatives of a competing business rather than former employees of the defamed company) in the future. Time will certainly tell.

Employment Law Attorneys Serving Dallas

In today’s competitive business environment, keeping and retaining a high quality workplace is paramount. If you have a legal matter that you need to discuss with an experienced Dallas employment law attorney, contact Key Harrington Barnes today at 214-615-7925.

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