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Bitter Fight Against Family Court Lawyers

FORT WORTH (CN) - Two court-appointed attorneys sued a family court watchdog group, claiming it defamed them in online posts that claim the lawyers are unethical and colluded with a judge to take "unearned attorney fees and child support from the mother."

Lori Deangelis and Laurie Robinson, both of Arlington, sued the Protective Parents Coalition on Tuesday in Tarrant County Court. They also sued Jennifer Olson, of Frisco, and Donna Tribunella, of Burleson.

The attorneys say they are "victims of slander and/or libel" on the Protective Parents Coalition (PPC) website and Facebook page, and on Tribunella's social media sites.

Among their complaint is that a banner posted on the PPC Facebook page on or around July 26, 2015 showed photographs of both plaintiffs with the caption, "Three of the most family court-appointed Fort Worth attorneys." The plaintiffs claim the banner "formally" describes them as "three of the worst family court appointed Fort Worth attorneys."

Another post that day stated: "One attorney representing children partnered with a district judge to take unearned attorney fees and child support from the mother of the children who out-cried inappropriate conduct by their father. Her primary motivation is attorney fees collected in each case," according to the 22-page lawsuit.

The post also said that one of the plaintiffs "had the power to have her paralegal direct a Tarrant County caseworker to select and destroy records collected in a social study" and that one of the plaintiffs "regularly advises one of the parties to fire their current attorney and to hire one of her friends," while acting as a court-appointed attorney, according to the complaint.

On Jan. 23 this year, the attorneys say, Tribunella posted on her Facebook page that the plaintiffs are "the spawn of Hell who I like to refer to as Court room Hall Whore Huggers who continually stay at the Court house to get Court ordered Assignment from the despicable Judges who order them to oversee a childs best interest (Thats a Joke) to keep them employed and deplete the family's finances and tear families apart and who coherece with opposing counsel when they are sworn to not share information one sided." (Spelling and language as in complaint.)

The objectionable statements take up five single-spaced pages of the lawsuit. It cites a Sept. 25, 2015 post from Tribunella, who allegedly called plaintiff Robinson "An attorney in Tarrant county who was removed as a child guardian ad litem for showing up Drunk as a skunk at a families home...Keep on drinking you alcoholic...hope you get pulled over tonight and thrown in jail before you ruin anymore lives~.. It is what it is~ you are pathetic...and Judge Polus and Judge Hennighan who appointed you need to be very ashamed...but yet again ...they are corrupt as hell~...what...is that an alcoholic beverage you are drinking?.....and your driving.....WOW...being an attorney dont you know that is Illegal ... and that makes you an unfit parent and moraless!" (Language and spelling as in complaint.)

The plaintiffs seek an injunction prohibiting the defendants from contacting them, their employers and their families, and from posting comments on the Internet "directly or indirectly refer" to them. They also want them prohibited from directly or indirectly taking pictures and conveying pictures of the plaintiffs.

Defendant Olson told Courthouse News that if granted, the plaintiffs' injunction "would silence the plaintiffs' critics named in the lawsuit and anyone else associated" with the defendants.

"This is a clear violation of protected free speech and freedom of association in our country," Olson said Tuesday afternoon.

Olson said she has spoken with attorneys who "believe this case is res judicata" — a legal term meaning a litigant is barred from raising the same issue from an earlier claim that could have been then.

Plaintiffs' attorney Jim Ross, in Arlington, denied any res judicata issue with the lawsuit. In an email message Tuesday afternoon, Ross said, "(W)e are confident the First Amendment does not cover the type of publications" used by the defendants.

In a precursor to the lawsuit, the attorneys in December filed a petition for presuit deposition against the defendants to determine who wrote the online posts.

Olson said the trial court dismissed that case in May under the Texas Citizens' Participation Act, the state's Anti-SLAPP law (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation).

The court also awarded $7,747 in attorneys' fees to PPC et al. in that case.

Olson said the plaintiff-attorneys later filed an "untimely" notice of appeal of that ruling.

"As of today, the [Texas] Second Court of Appeals has not ruled if they will provide an extension to their appeal," Olson said, citing a letter from the court.

The plaintiffs seek a restraining order and actual and punitive damages for libel, business disparagement, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and intrusion on seclusion.

Formed in 2012 by several parents, the PPC says it "is dedicated to providing an impartial assessment of the effectiveness of family courts in dealing with custody, visitation, support and property issues." The founders "decided to educate the public" about "unethical child custody evaluators" after seeing "unusual" family court rulings, according to its website.

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