AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – The Texas Supreme Court rejected a Dallas magazine’s bid to dismiss a lengthy battle over defamation claims brought by a woman it referred to as a “welfare queen” in a 2013 article.
The state’s high court found Friday that Dallas-based D Magazine’s article about resident Janay Rosenthal falsely implied that she had obtained Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits by falsifying her address and omitting certain incomes from her application.
The court agreed with Rosenthal after she presented evidence that D Magazine “failed to take reasonable steps to verify the accuracy of the story's gist" because the publication didn’t contact the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to verify documents used in its reporting, according to the 22-page opinion written by Justice Debra Lehrmann.
Rosenthal sued D Magazine in Dallas County District Court in 2014 for libel and deceptive trade after it published an article about her titled "The Park Cities Welfare Queen." She claimed the magazine published false statements by insinuating she had committed welfare fraud.
The article at issue, published without a byline, was attributed to “an anonymous Park Cities parent.”
The satirical piece explained in five steps how to get food stamp benefits through dubious methods. D Magazine printed it in its “Crime” section, Rosenthal said in her complaint.
Before it was published, according to Rosenthal’s lawsuit, D Magazine editor Tim Rogers called her and “asked if she had any comments about ‘committing fraud with food stamps.'”
Rosenthal’s lawyer said she had “very little money”at the time after a custody battle with her ex-husband, and had to apply for SNAP benefits to be able to “remain independent.”
The trial court and state appeals court both denied D Magazine’s motion to dismiss Rosenthal’s libel claim.
However, the appeals court used a Wikipedia post to define "welfare queen," which Texas press associations found problematic, according to their June 2016 amicus brief. Wikipedia defines the term as referring to women who commit welfare fraud.
"By its nature, Wikipedia is an inherently unreliable source" because the public can edit any posts in its database and can do so anonymously, press associations stated in the 32-page amicus brief.
The Texas Supreme Court agreed with the press associations Friday on that point.
"We find it unlikely Wikipedia could suffice as the sole source of authority on an issue of any significance to a case," Justice Lehrmann wrote. The state’s high court suggested instead that future decisions should be based on dictionary definitions of relevant terms, rather than potentially "inaccurate or unbalanced" Wikipedia posts.
The court also reversed the appeals court’s denial of D Magazine’s request for attorney’s fees.
“The trial court dismissed the statutory claims Rosenthal asserted on behalf of herself and her minor daughter, and each of those claims constituted a ‘legal action’ under the [Texas Citizens Participation Act]’s broad definition of the term. D Magazine was therefore entitled to an award of reasonable attorney’s fees,” the ruling states.
However, the Texas Supreme Court affirmed the denial of D Magazine’s motion to dismiss Rosenthal’s defamation claim.
“Because the article could reasonably be construed to accuse Rosenthal of committing a crime, it is defamatory per se, and Rosenthal need not show actual damages,” Lehrmann wrote. “Rosenthal also presented clear and specific evidence that the article’s gist is not substantially true; specifically, she presented evidence that the Commission conducted an investigation and concluded that she engaged in no wrongdoing in obtaining SNAP benefits.”
Rosenthal's attorney John DeFeo agreed with the state supreme court's stance on citing Wikipedia articles and said in an interview Tuesday that such a post was not part of his argument in the libel lawsuit.
DeFeo said he and his client were "really pleased" with the court's decision and excited that the multi-year appeals battle was over.
DeFeo and Rosenthal are now able to "finally get the chance to pursue the lawsuit," and they are "very anxious to start," he said.
The Texas Supreme Court’s opinion could bolster DeFeo's argument against D Magazine because the court found there was "sufficient evidence that the article was misleading," which was extremely helpful to Rosenthal’s case, DeFeo said.
D Magazine's attorney Jason Bloom with Haynes Boone in Dallas said in an interview Tuesday that he was "pleased with the outcome on attorney's fees.”
Bloom said the attorney's fees ruling put the firm in a "much better place than we were before."
The fee request in conjunction with the previous dismissal of the deceptive trade charges made up half of the entire case, Bloom said.
However, Bloom was disappointed with the state high court's decision to deny his client’s motion to dismiss the libel charges based on its interpretation of the "gist" of the article, and he cited the appeals court’s August 2015 dissenting opinion written by Justice Ada Brown. Justice Brown asserted that the article was "satirical" in nature and did not explicitly accuse Rosenthal of welfare fraud.
Despite the state supreme court's ruling, Bloom said that "on the merits, we remain confident."
DeFeo said he hopes D Magazine and Haynes and Boone will agree to settle the lawsuit before it goes to trial, but conceded his discussions with opposing attorneys indicated that a settlement was unlikely. Nevertheless, DeFeo said he looks forward to beginning discovery in an effort to vindicate Rosenthal.
D Magazine's article in question is still available on its website as of Wednesday, and its sole correction relates to a state agency’s process for reviewing SNAP applications.
Regardless of the case's outcome, Rosenthal’s attorney said she will continue to have to explain to people why her name comes up in Google searches as someone who committed welfare fraud.
"The damage has already been done,” DeFeo said.