Texas High Court Shields Blogger's Anonymity
AUSTIN, Texas (CN) - A judge improperly tried to rip the cloak of anonymity from a blogger who lambasted a software maker online, the Texas Supreme Court ruled.
The dispute stems from an online attack that a blogger calling himself "the Trooper" launched against Reynolds & Reynolds Co., a developer of automotive-dealership software/
Google hosts the Trooper's now-defunct blog, which described the products Reynolds offers as "crap."
The Trooper also likened the company's Houston-based CEO Robert T. Brockman to Bernie Madoff, Satan and Bobo the Clown.
Believing that the Trooper was a Texas resident and possibly a Reynolds & Reynolds employee, the company and Brockman filed a Rule 202 petition with the District Court of Harris County, Texas, to have Google disclose the Trooper's name, telephone number and address.
In addition to potential libel claims, proof that that the Trooper worked for Reynolds could have exposed him to a count for breach of fiduciary duty.
The Texas Supreme Court noted Friday that Google had no problem disclosing the information, but the Trooper did. He hired lawyer Shelly Skeen to represent him, preserve his anonymity and argue that Brockman did not have the jurisdiction to reveal his identity.
Brockman's lawyer, Grant Harvey, disagreed.
"No matter what standard is imposed ... my client, Mr. Brockman, cleared it by a mile," Harvey said during oral arguments last November, according to a transcript provided by the court.
Rule 202 petitions are a way of taking discovery to "perpetuate testimony in danger of being lost," such as by the death or departure of a witness. Such petitions have to be filed in a "proper court," and the Trooper argued there was no proper court for him because he did not live in Texas.
Harvey tried to counter this by pointing to 45 citations from the Trooper's blog that indicated he was an employee and that he lived in Dayton, a suburb of Houston.
"There's one thing we know about the Trooper in this courtroom," Harvey said. "He's a liar."
"Maybe he has property in Texas," the lawyer continued. "Maybe he has bank accounts in Texas. Maybe he has a second home in Texas."
Chief Justice Nathan Hecht asked if that would open up Texas courts as a means to investigate cases across the entire U.S.
"Why should Texas courts just be sort of the state bureau of investigation?" he asked, adding that it seemed like an inevitable conclusion.
The court was sharply divided Friday in vacating the order authorizing discovery.
Writing for the majority, Hecht said Rule 202 petitions could "eviscerate" other due-process protections by requiring defendants to choose between defending themselves in a forum where a lawsuit could not be brought and having that defense used against them later in an appropriate forum.
The burden of proof for the Trooper's personal jurisdiction in Texas was Brockman's.
"We recognize that this burden may be heavier in a case like this," the 12-page opinion states. "But even so, Rule 202 does not guarantee access to information for every petitioner who claims to need it."
Hecht added: "We will not interpret Rule 202 to make Texas the world's inspector general."
Justice Debra Lehrmann wrote the dissent, which says that the court's misinterpretation of the rules of civil procedure creates "a quagmire for persons injured by anonymous Internet bloggers."
They now must choose "to either file potentially fruitless lawsuits in an attempt to determine the identity of the alleged wrongdoer or waive redress," Lehrmann wrote. "At best, this unnecessarily increases litigation costs for those persons injured by online defamation, while imposing additional burdens on our already overloaded court system. At worst, it deprives injured parties of reparation."