William Helfand Secures Appellate Dismissal of Slander Suit Against Texas City Attorney
Houston, Texas (August 11, 2023) – Houston and Salt Lake City Partner William (“Bill”) S. Helfand recently secured an appellate win when the First District Court of Appeals of Texas determined that Lewis Brisbois’ client – a city attorney – was entitled to government immunity in a matter involving claims of slander.
As a Texas Lawyer (part of Law.com) article explains, this case arose when the mayor asked the city attorney – during a City Council meeting – about the status of a lawsuit involving another lawyer. In response to the mayor’s inquiry, the city attorney explained the other lawyer had been sanctioned by several courts, and that the Texas Commission for Lawyer Discipline had filed a petition against him. In addition, the city attorney read a portion of that petition to the Council.
The lawyer, about whom the city attorney made the statements, subsequently filed a lawsuit against the city attorney for slander per se. In response, the city attorney contended that the case against him should be dismissed because when he made the allegedly defamatory comments, he was acting in the scope of his employment. He further argued that, under Texas law, the lawsuit should have been filed against the city. The district court, however, denied the city attorney’s motion to dismiss. The city attorney appealed.
On appeal, Mr. Helfand argued, on behalf of Lewis Brisbois’ client, that the lower court erred in failing to dismiss the case because the city attorney was acting in the scope of his employment when he made the statements at issue. In response, the plaintiff – who has now been disbarred – contended that the city attorney had deviated from his job duties by commenting on litigation that was unrelated to city business. He further argued that Lewis Brisbois’ client took an independent course of conduct that did not serve any purpose of the city.
The First District Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiff’s position, reversed the district court’s order, and rendered judgment in favor of Lewis Brisbois’ client. In doing so, the Court of Appeals explained that under the Tort Claims Act, a government employee is statutorily entitled to dismissal from a lawsuit where the suit is based on conduct within the scope of employment, and if the suit could have been brought against the governmental unit. The court determined that the pleadings demonstrated that Lewis Brisbois’ client was performing his job duties when, at the mayor’s request, the city attorney gave a litigation update. The court further concluded that the lawsuit was governed by the Texas Tort Claims Act and thus was one that could have been brought against the city. Thus, the court reversed the denial of the city attorney’s motion to dismiss and rendered judgment in favor of Lewis Brisbois’ client.
Notably, the same plaintiff filed a similar lawsuit alleging defamation against the City’s mayor, council members, and city staff. That matter is pending in the same court of appeals under a separate appeal in which Lewis Brisbois represents those city officials as well. The firm remains hopeful the panel of the court of appeals deciding that appeal will apply the same legal reasoning adopted by the court of appeals in this case.
Mr. Helfand serves as vice-chair of Lewis Brisbois’ Labor & Employment Practice. His practice covers a wide range of litigation, arbitration, and dispute resolution. Based on his demonstrated problem-solving approach, both private and public entity clients of all types reach out to him to handle their most difficult legal problems.
Read the full Texas Lawyer article, titled “Disbarred Montgomery County Lawyer's Slander Suit Fails on Appeal,” here (subscription may be required).