BONNIE SUDDERTH, CHIEF JUSTICE.
In nine issues, Appellants James McGibney and ViaView, Inc. complain of the trial court's award of attorney's fees and contingent appellate attorney's fees, as well as monetary and nonmonetary sanctions, to Appellee Neal Rauhauser in conjunction with the granting of Appellee's motion to dismiss under chapter 27 of the civil practice and remedies code, also known as the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA). Concluding, in light of the record before us, that the trial court abused its discretion by awarding an unreasonable amount of attorney's fees and monetary sanctions under the TCPA, by imposing nonmonetary sanctions when the TCPA does not provide for them, and by improperly conditioning the appellate attorney's fee award, we reverse and vacate these portions of the trial court's judgment, affirm the remainder of the trial court's judgment, and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
I. General Background
In response to a defamation action that Appellants brought against him, Appellee filed a motion to dismiss under the TCPA. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 27.001-.011 (West 2015). After Appellee appealed the trial court's failure to rule on the motion within the time prescribed by section 27.005, we remanded the case for the trial court to dismiss Appellants' defamation claims and to conduct a hearing on the award of attorney's fees and sanctions. See Rauhauser v. McGibney (Rauhauser I), 508 S.W.3d 377, 380, 390 (Tex. App. — Fort Worth 2014, no pet.), disapproved of on other grounds by Hersh v. Tatum, 526 S.W.3d 462, 467 & n.23 (Tex. 2017).
On remand, without holding a hearing, the trial court signed an order awarding $300,383.84 in attorney's fees and $1,000,000 in sanctions. In their emergency motion to stay the order, Appellants raised — among other complaints — the failure of the trial court to hold a hearing on the matter. The trial court granted the motion. After conducting a hearing, the trial court signed a new order setting aside the $1,000,000 sanction award and awarding Appellee $300,383.84 in attorney's fees and expenses, $75,000 in conditional attorney's fees on appeal, and $150,000 in sanctions. In addition, the trial court imposed nonmonetary sanctions, ordering:
II. Attorney's Fees
A. Complaint as to the Amount of Attorney's Fees Awarded
1. Attorney's Fees Incurred in Defending Against the Suit
In Appellants' first and second issues, they argue that the trial court erred by awarding attorney's fees that were not actually incurred or incurred in defending against this suit. Embedded in their argument is a complaint that the amount awarded was not reasonable. We agree that the amount of attorney's fees awarded was not reasonable.
When reviewing a trial court's award of attorney's fees under civil practice and remedies code section 27.009(a)(1), appellate courts should apply an abuse of discretion standard. Sullivan v. Abraham, 488 S.W.3d 294, 299 (Tex. 2016). A trial court does not abuse its discretion merely because the appellate court would have ruled differently in the same circumstance. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Robinson, 923 S.W.2d 549, 558 (Tex. 1995); see also Low v. Henry, 221 S.W.3d 609, 620 (Tex. 2007). Instead, the appropriate inquiry is whether the court acted without reference to any guiding rules or principles, that is, whether the court's act was arbitrary or unreasonable. Low, 221 S.W.3d at 614; Cire v. Cummings, 134 S.W.3d 835, 838-39 (Tex. 2004).
And while an abuse of discretion does not occur when the trial court bases its decision on conflicting evidence and some evidence of substantive and probative character supports its decision, Unifund CCR Partners v. Villa, 299 S.W.3d 92, 97 (Tex. 2009); Butnaru v. Ford Motor Co., 84 S.W.3d 198, 211 (Tex. 2002) (op. on reh'g), when a trial court rules without supporting evidence, it has abused its discretion. Ford Motor Co. v. Garcia, 363 S.W.3d 573, 578 (Tex. 2012).
With regard to awarding attorney's fees following the granting of a motion to dismiss under the TCPA, civil practice and remedies code section 27.009(a)(1) provides,
Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 27.009(a)(1).
In applying section 27.009(a)(1), the supreme court has instructed us two-fold. Sullivan, 488 S.W.3d at 296. Specifically, the court has clarified the meaning of "reasonable attorney's fees" under the statute. Id. at 299. A reasonable attorney's fee, according to Sullivan, is "`one that is not excessive or extreme, but rather moderate or fair.'" Id. (quoting Garcia v. Gomez, 319 S.W.3d 638, 642 (Tex. 2010)). And the supreme court has directed us that the phrase, "as justice and equity may require" does not modify the term "attorney's fees." Id. at 298-99. This holding is of particular importance here when considering Appellants' argument that "[o]nly fees incurred in defending against the suit can be shifted to [Appellants]." A closer look at the underpinning for the Sullivan holding reveals the fallacy of this argument.
In Sullivan, the court observed that had the legislature intended for the phrase "incurred in defending the legal action as justice and equity may require" to apply to attorney's fees, the legislature could have inserted a comma after "other expenses." Id. at 298. But, as the court pointed out, the legislature did not. Id. at 298-99. Thus, in addressing the question of whether the principles of justice and equity are to be
The phrase that Appellants urge should apply to the assessment of attorney's fees — "incurred in defending the legal action" — is part of the very same phrase that the court in Sullivan held did not to apply to attorney's fees. See id. If the latter part of the phrase "incurred in defending the legal action as justice and equity may require" does not apply to attorney's fees, it cannot be said that the former part does. See id. Thus, following Sullivan, the phrase "incurred in defending the legal action" applies only to the award of other expenses, not attorney's fees. Per Sullivan, then, under section 27.009, "other expenses" outside of court costs and attorney's fees can be awarded only if "incurred in defending against the legal action as justice and equity may require," but the statute requires that attorney's fees awarded under the statute be "reasonable." Consequently, we overrule Appellants' first issue and this part of Appellants' second issue.
But our inquiry does not end here. We still must consider Appellants' argument that the attorney's fees awarded were excessive and unreasonable.
2. Reasonableness of Attorney's Fees Awarded
Here, the trial court awarded 100% of the amount that Appellee sought — $300,838.84. In the proper exercise of its discretion, a trial judge is obliged to do more than simply act as a rubber-stamp, accepting carte blanche the amount appearing on the bill. See id. at 299-300 (discussing that a trial court should conduct a "meaningful review" of fee applications). As explained above, to discharge its responsibility, the trial court must act within guiding rules and principles, see Low, 221 S.W.3d at 614; Cire, 134 S.W.3d at 838-39, and the trial court's award must be based on supporting evidence. See Ford Motor Co., 363 S.W.3d at 578.
In reaching our conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to support the trial court's award of the entire amount sought by Appellee, we need only to look at a handful of the charges that appear on his billing statement. Some entries were so heavily redacted that the trial court could not possibly have had sufficient evidence to determine that the entire amount requested was "not excessive or extreme, but rather moderate or fair." See Sullivan, 488 S.W.3d at 299. For example, on March 16, 2014, Appellee's attorney billed 5.5 hours totaling $3,025 for work described as follows:
From this entry, the trial judge could glean only that the attorney exchanged several emails with his client, adjusted something, completed drafting an affidavit of some sort, and continued researching and drafting something else.
See id. at 299 (holding that proof of attorney's fees "must be sufficient to permit a court `to perform a meaningful review of their fee application'"). Other, less brutally redacted entries provided some information but still stopped short of providing any meaningful evidence of the tasks performed:
Admittedly, the content of some of the redacted matters may have involved communications between attorney and client.
For example, part of the $300,838.84 awarded included a charge for work performed on March 7, 2014 — prior to being served and more than a week before Appellee made his first appearance in this lawsuit
Other entries have dubious relevance to this lawsuit. For example, on March 19, March 20, and April 11, 2014, Appellee's attorney billed 4.9 hours for what can only be characterized as "oppo research"
Other charged services went well beyond the depth of research and preparation ordinarily expended in the early stages of any lawsuit. In fact, a review of the entire 23 pages of billing records attached to Appellee's attorney's affidavit reveals a troublesome pattern of heavy front-end loading of legal work that might very well have been reasonable, if the case had ever moved beyond the chapter 27 dismissal stage,
Even more troubling is the fact that Appellee was never served in this lawsuit and, thus, was never under any compunction to appear in the lawsuit whatsoever. See Rauhauser I, 508 S.W.3d at 382 (setting forth then-appellees' argument that Appellee had not been served with citation when he filed his motion to dismiss and that he had been aware that they were going to nonsuit before he filed his motion).
According to Appellee's attorney's affidavit, less than a week before the May 21, 2014 hearing on the chapter 27 motion, Appellee had already amassed $66,955.50 in attorney's fees, representing 144.30 hours.
Other areas of legal work that appear in this record also give us pause, including the numerous hours devoted to reviewing not only the rulings or holdings of particular cases but also the entire records of those cases. We find particularly troublesome the practice of reviewing the entire files of trial court cases outside of this court's jurisdiction, when the rulings from those cases would yield no authoritative — or even persuasive — authority to guide the trial court in the instant case. For example, on March 26, 2014 — eight days after Appellee filed his special appearance in this case — Appellee's attorney had already billed for the following research:
The billing records contain other similar examples of research of cases at the trial court level.
Other charges were obviously not for the client's benefit but rather for the benefit of the attorney himself, such as the .70 hours billed on June 12, 2014, which related to an alleged internet and social attack against Appellee's attorney, not Appellee.
The examples cited above are not an exhaustive list of the billing entries submitted in this case that lead us to conclude
3. The 18.001 Affidavit
Appellee argues that the trial court was nevertheless required to award all fees sought. According to Appellee, because he proved his attorney's fees in an "18.001" affidavit, Appellants were precluded at the trial court level and now on appeal from challenging reasonableness. We disagree.
In civil cases not involving a suit on a sworn account, a party may prove that a service was reasonable and necessary
We will set aside the question as to whether Appellee's attorney's affidavit complied with civil practice and remedies code section 18.001 and assume, without holding, that it did. With that assumption, the question becomes whether Appellants can challenge the reasonableness of the fees awarded on appeal.
To challenge the reasonableness of the amount charged for a service after a proper 18.001 affidavit has been filed, the opponent must file and serve a controverting affidavit in compliance with 18.001. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 18.001(e)-(f). If the opponent's controverting affidavit is properly prepared and served, then the original 18.001 affidavit no longer suffices to prove that the amount charged was reasonable. See id. § 18.001(b). Thus, by filing a proper controverting affidavit, the opposing party can force the party with the burden of proof to prove reasonableness through expert testimony. Hong v. Bennett, 209 S.W.3d 795, 801 (Tex. App. — Fort Worth 2006, no pet.). Here, Appellants filed no controverting 18.001 affidavit.
However, while an unchallenged 18.001 affidavit provides legally sufficient evidence at trial to support a finding that the amount charged was reasonable, the affidavit does not constitute conclusive proof. Id. at 800; see Atwood v. Pietrowicz, No. 02-10-00010-CV, 2010 WL 4261600, at *4 (Tex. App. — Fort Worth Oct. 28, 2010, no pet.) (mem. op.). In Atwood, the appellants contended that their uncontroverted 18.001 affidavits entitled them to recover the amounts reflected therein as a matter of law. 2010 WL 4261600, at *3. But as we explained,
Id. at *4 (holding that the Atwoods were still required to demonstrate that the services were sought as a result of Pietrowicz's actions).
This rule does not change in the context of chapter 27 hearings. As the supreme court has instructed us, in the context of a chapter 27 dismissal hearing, the judge, as the factfinder, must determine whether the amount is "not excessive or extreme, but rather moderate or fair." Sullivan, 488 S.W.3d at 299.
The gist of Appellants' argument on appeal is that because the charges in Appellee's 18.001 affidavit were excessive, as opposed to moderate or fair, the trial court erred by awarding the entire amount sought. For the reasons already set forth above, we agree. Consequently, we sustain this part of Appellants' second issue. On remand, the court should consider in its determination and award of reasonable attorney's fees, among other factors, Appellee's choice to file an answer before service of citation, his knowledge of the upcoming nonsuit, and his intent to use a dismissal in another lawsuit against him by the same plaintiffs. See Rauhauser I, 508 S.W.3d at 382 & n.3.
B. Complaint as to the Award of Conditional Appellate Fees
In Appellants' seventh issue, they argue that the manner in which the trial court awarded conditional appellate attorney's fees is not authorized by law. In its "Order Awarding Attorney Fees and Sanctions," the trial court ordered "[c]onditional attorney's fees of $50,000.00 for a second appeal to the court of appeals, which such appeal does not result in a complete reversal of all amounts awarded." [Emphasis added.] We agree that the trial court improperly conditioned the award of attorney's fees.
In considering the propriety of awarding appellate attorney's fees, we begin with the general rule that because a party should not be penalized for successfully appealing an error occurring in a lower court, appellate attorney's fees must be conditioned upon a successful appeal. Lawry v. Pecan Plantation Owners Ass'n, No. 02-15-00079-CV, 2016 WL 4395777, at *9 (Tex. App. — Fort Worth Aug. 18, 2016, no pet.) (mem. op.); Solomon v. Steitler, 312 S.W.3d 46, 59 (Tex. App. — Texarkana 2010, no pet.) ("The trial court may not grant an award of appellate attorney's fees unless such award is conditioned on a successful appeal, as doing so could penalize a
Here, Appellants point out that given the appellate history of this case, the trial court's conditioning of the award of appellate attorney's fees on a "complete reversal" created an "impossibility." Because of this court's prior holding that Appellee was entitled to some award of attorney's fees and sanctions, which has now become the law of the case, we agree that from the outset, Appellants were precluded from ever obtaining a "complete reversal of all amounts awarded." See Rauhauser I, 508 S.W.3d at 389-90; City of Aledo v. Brennan, Nos. 02-14-00147-CV, 02-14-00153-CV, 2016 WL 3157354, at *12 (Tex. App. — Fort Worth June 2, 2016, pet. denied) (mem. op.) (explaining "law of the case" doctrine as providing that "a decision rendered in a former appeal of a case is generally binding in a later appeal of the same case"). As Appellants pointed out, "The Court of Appeals ruled [Appellee] is entitled to an award of fees and sanctions. [Appellants] do not now contest this, nor would they ever appeal on these grounds as this issue has already been decided."
Appellee offered three sentences in response: "[Appellants] complain that the `condition' imposed by the trial court for recovery of fees is `impossible.' [Appellants] do not explain why the condition of success on appeal is `impossible,' nor do [Appellants] reveal what condition they might find acceptable. [Appellants] lose." We disagree.
Given our holding above that sustains Appellants' complaint about the amount of attorney's fees awarded, Appellants have partially succeeded in prosecuting this appeal. See Intercont'l Grp. P'ship v. KB Home Lone Star L.P., 295 S.W.3d 650, 655 (Tex. 2009) (holding that "[w]hether a party prevails turns on whether the party prevails upon the court to award it something," and explaining that a party who "sought over $1 million in damages, but instead left the courthouse empty-handed [was] `... not the stuff of which legal victories are made'" (quoting Hewitt v. Helms, 482 U.S. 755, 760, 107 S.Ct. 2672, 2676, 96 L.Ed.2d 654 (1987)); see also Farrar v. Hobby, 506 U.S. 103, 111, 113 S.Ct. 566, 573, 121 L.Ed.2d 494 (1992) (holding that in a civil rights suit, "at least some relief on the merits" must be obtained by a party to qualify as a "prevailing party"). To avoid penalizing Appellants for successfully prosecuting their appeal, Appellants should not be made to pay for the appellate attorney's fees that Appellee incurred in his unsuccessful defense of his attorney's fees. See Lawry, 2016 WL 4395777, at *9; Solomon, 312 S.W.3d at 59.
Because the trial court's conditioning of the award of appellate attorney's fees worked to reward the unsuccessful party and to punish the successful party on appeal, we sustain Appellants' seventh issue. See, e.g., Halleman v. Halleman, Nos. 02-11-00238-CV, 02-11-00259-CV, 2011 WL 5247882, at *3, *5 n.5 (Tex. App. — Fort Worth Nov. 3, 2011, orig. proceeding) (mem. op.) (observing that "conditional" language entitling real party in interest to $50,000 if appellate court affirmed in whole or in part the trial court's divorce judgment
C. Complaint as to the Trial Court's Failure to Timely Rule
In Appellants' sixth issue, they complain that the trial court's delay in ruling caused higher attorney's fees to be incurred.
Generally speaking, there is little disagreement among courts and commentators alike that delay increases costs. See, e.g., Carrie E. Johnson, Comment, Rocket Dockets: Reducing Delay in Federal Civil Litigation, 85 Cal. L. Rev. 225, 225 (1997) ("Courts and commentators agree that civil docket delay in the federal courts is a serious problem, undermining justice and increasing costs to both litigants and society in general."). And we have previously found in this case that the trial judge failed to rule on the motion to dismiss within the time prescribed by law. Rauhauser I, 508 S.W.3d at 381. Nevertheless, to the extent that Appellants' sixth issue identifies a wrong, it is a wrong without remedy.
In ordinary cases, a trial court's failure to rule within a reasonable time period constitutes an abuse of discretion for which the remedy of mandamus is available. See In re Granite Shop, No. 02-08-00410-CV, 2009 WL 485696, at *2 (Tex. App. — Fort Worth Feb. 24, 2009, orig. proceeding) (mem. op.). But in an action under the TCPA, a trial court's failure to rule on a motion to dismiss within the time mandated by law has a statutory remedy — the motion is denied by operation of law. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 27.005(a),.008(a). Immediately thereafter, an interlocutory appeal may be taken. Id. § 27.008(a); see In re Lipsky, 460 S.W.3d 579, 585 n.2 (Tex. 2015) (orig. proceeding) (explaining that the legislature has clarified that interlocutory appeal is permitted under the TCPA); cf. In re Van Waters & Rogers, Inc., 145 S.W.3d 203, 210-11 (Tex. 2004) (orig. proceeding) ("Absent extraordinary circumstances, mandamus will not issue unless defendants lack an adequate appellate remedy."). Here, Appellee appealed the trial court's denial — by operation of law — of his motion to dismiss, resulting in a reversal of the trial court's order and the case's remand back to the trial court to consider attorney's fees and sanctions. Rauhauser I, 508 S.W.3d at 380, 390.
Appellants now complain that the trial court's delay in ruling "resulted in windfall profits for [Appellee's] attorneys and multiplied the fee award against [Appellants] six times over." Even if we were to assume the correctness of Appellants' assertion, Appellants point to no additional legal relief to which they would be entitled to rectify the problem, and we can find none. As discussed above, chapter 27 mandates that, as the prevailing party, Appellee will recover reasonable attorney's fees. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 27.009 (stating that if the trial court orders dismissal of a legal action under chapter 27, it "shall" award to the moving party "court costs, reasonable attorney's fees, and other expenses incurred in defending against the legal action as justice and equity may require"). That these attorney's fees may have multiplied due to the trial court's delay in ruling on the motion to dismiss in a more expeditious fashion provides no exception under the statute. See generally id. § 27.010 (listing exemptions for state enforcement actions, commercial transactions, personal injury, wrongful death, or cases brought under the insurance code or arising out of an insurance contract). We overrule Appellants' sixth issue.
In issues three and four, Appellants contend that the trial court erred in its imposition of non-monetary sanctions and that the monetary sanctions awarded were impermissibly punitive rather than a deterrent. We review a trial court's imposition of sanctions under an abuse of discretion standard. Nath v. Tex. Children's Hosp., 446 S.W.3d 355, 361 (Tex. 2014) (reviewing sanctions under civil practice and remedies code chapter 10 and rule of civil procedure 13); see also Ball v. Rao, 48 S.W.3d 332, 338 (Tex. App. — Fort Worth 2001, pet. denied).
A. Complaint as to Non-Monetary Sanctions
In issue four, Appellants argue that the trial court's imposition of non-monetary sanctions was improper as beyond the TCPA's scope and thus constituted an abuse of discretion.
Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 27.009(a). Here we are asked to determine whether the phrase "shall award to the moving party ... sanctions" empowers a trial court to impose non-monetary sanctions, or whether the trial court's authority to award sanctions is limited solely to monetary sanctions. The key to that determination is found in the legislature's choice of the word "award."
As with any statutory term, we give effect to the legislature's intent in using the word "award" by looking to the plain meaning of the word. See Molinet v. Kimbrell, 356 S.W.3d 407, 411 (Tex. 2011) ("The plain meaning of the text is the best expression of legislative intent unless a different meaning is apparent from the context or the plain meaning leads to absurd or nonsensical results."). We not only must presume that the legislature deliberately and purposefully selected this particular word but also must presume that it deliberately and purposefully omitted words that it did not intend to include. See Wasson Interests, Ltd. v. City of Jacksonville, 489 S.W.3d 427, 438 (Tex. 2016) (citing Tex. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Ruttiger, 381 S.W.3d 430, 452 (Tex. 2012) (op. on reh'g)). When looking at the plain meaning of a particular word, the Code Construction Act also directs us that "[w]ords and phrases that have acquired a technical or particular meaning, whether by legislative definition or otherwise, shall be construed accordingly." Tex. Gov't Code Ann. § 311.011(b) (West 2013). Thus, when considering the meaning of a word chosen by the legislature, we look at how the word is applied in the larger legislative scheme. See id.
The Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code had its genesis in the Texas Statutory
An examination of the entire civil practice and remedies code reveals consistency with regard to the use of the term "award."
In contrast, in the rare sections under which nonmonetary sanctions are authorized, the legislature chose not to use the word "award," but instead, in all but one instance,
Thus, under the statutory scheme provided in the civil practice and remedies code, it appears that the plain meaning of the word "award" means to assess a monetary amount, whereas the word "impose" may confer a larger grant of authority, such as to impose non-monetary sanctions.
In section 27.009, the legislature once again employed the word, "award." Because it chose "award," rather than "impose" and did not — as it did in sections 9.012(3), 10.004, 90.054, and 140A.102(a) — expressly confer the power to impose non-monetary sanctions, we hold that section 27.009 does not authorize the imposition of nonmonetary sanctions. Because a trial court does not have discretion to misapply the law, the trial court here abused its discretion by imposing non-monetary sanctions. See Walker v. Packer, 827 S.W.2d 833, 840 (Tex. 1992) (orig. proceeding) ("A trial court has no `discretion' in determining what the law is or applying the law to the facts."). Accordingly, we sustain Appellants' fourth issue.
B. Complaint that Excessive Sanctions Punished Rather than Deterred
In issue three, Appellants complain that the trial court's award of $150,000 in sanctions was excessive and impermissibly punitive — rather than a deterrent of future conduct — thus violating due process because they nonsuited their lawsuit only weeks after filing it and because McGibney testified about his and ViaView's low net worth.
McGibney stated in an affidavit attached to his supersedeas filing that his net worth was $258.47 and that ViaView's net worth was $7.02.
Appellee points to two items of "evidence" in the record to support the award, which he attached to his response and objection to Appellants' motion for new trial. The first item referenced by him purports to show that two years prior to filing the lawsuit, in 2012, McGibney made a $1 million business offer. The second purports to show that in 2013, McGibney referred to ViaView as a "company that
Appellee also urges the application of the "Gore Guideposts," see BMW of N. Am., Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 116 S.Ct. 1589, 134 L.Ed.2d 809 (1996), and cites examples of the "reprehensibility" of Appellants' conduct, both before and during the course of litigation.
We reject Appellee's contention that the "Gore Guideposts" are applicable here. In Gore, the Supreme Court set forth three factors to consider in determining whether punitive damages are excessive and thus violative of due process: (1) the reprehensibility of the defendant's conduct; (2) the ratio between the penalty and the actual harm suffered by the plaintiff; and (3) the relative severity of civil or criminal penalties imposed for the defendant's transgressions or comparable misconduct. See id. at 574-75, 116 S.Ct. at 1598-99. These factors — focused on the severity of the underlying tort and the degree of the actor's culpability — do not apply here, however, because the sanctions authorized under section 27.009, unlike the punitive damages addressed in Gore, are not aimed to punish but rather only to deter. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 27.009(a)(2).
We agree that based on the meager evidence before us, the $150,000 sanction award was excessive. We sustain Appellants' third issue.
IV. Other Findings
Appellants complain, in issue five, that the trial court erred by making a finding of "willfulness and maliciousness" without the authority to do so. We agree.
Chapter 27 permits the trial court to make additional findings upon the movant's request. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 27.007(a) (providing for findings "regarding whether the legal action was brought to deter or prevent the moving party from exercising constitutional
Willfulness is a type of mens rea and, as such, describes the state of mind of an actor at the time an act was performed. See Burnett Ranches, Ltd. v. Cano Petroleum, Inc., 289 S.W.3d 862, 866 (Tex. App. — Amarillo 2009, pet. denied). In a civil context, to be willful, a party must be more than negligent and must act with purpose and design. Id. Thus, although the trial court's finding that Appellants acted willfully acknowledges that the court found that they acted with some purpose, a finding of willfulness, without more, stops short of identifying the actual purpose itself, e.g., "to harass," "to cause unnecessary delay," or "to increase the cost of litigation." See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 27.007(a). The court's characterization of Appellants' conduct as "willful" may be descriptive, but it stops short of a finding of an improper purpose. Thus, it falls outside of the boundary of the findings permitted by section 27.007(a).
Malice, too, is a type of mens rea. See Foust v. Hefner, No. 07-13-00331-CV, 2014 WL 3928781, at *5 (Tex. App. — Amarillo Aug. 12, 2014, no pet.) (mem. op.). As with willfulness, a finding of malice is not tantamount to a finding of an improper purpose. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that — whether acting with purpose or without purpose — a person acted without justification or excuse or with ill will or wickedness of heart. See Malice, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). Again, while descriptive of an improper motive, this stops short of constituting the actual finding of an improper purpose contemplated by the statute. Thus, as with willfulness, maliciousness is a finding beyond those findings authorized by section 27.007(b). Accordingly, we sustain Appellants' fifth issue.
V. ViaView's "Counterclaims"
In its eighth issue, Appellants complain that ViaView was "never afforded the Opportunity to Pursue its Counterclaims per the Appellate order." Appellee argues that because ViaView nonsuited these claims, there were no claims to be pursued. The relevant chronology is as follows:
• February 19, 2014: Appellants sued Appellee for, among other things, business disparagement and for tortious interference with business relationships. See Rauhauser I, 508 S.W.3d at 380.
• March 20, 2014: Appellants filed a "Motion to Dismiss Without Prejudice" as to all of their claims. See id. at 381.
• March 24, 2014: The trial court signed an order granting Appellants' motion and dismissing all of their claims against Appellee. See id.
After the trial court subsequently declined to rule on Appellee's chapter 27 motion to dismiss, Appellee appealed to this court. See id. We held, in part, that while Appellants had the absolute right to nonsuit their own claims, Appellee retained his right to remedies under chapter 27 because his chapter 27 motion to dismiss survived the nonsuit. Id. at 381-82. We remanded the case to the trial court to enter an order of dismissal and "for further proceedings relating to [Appellee]'s court costs, attorney's fees, expenses, and sanctions under section 27.009(a)(1) and (2) of the TCPA." Id. at 390.
In the opinion, we also held that
Id. Our mandate that issued on February 19, 2015, mirrored this holding with the following language: "We remand this case to the trial court to enter an order dismissing all claims against Rauhauser except ViaView's business disparagement claim and tortious interference with business relationship claim to the extent those claims are not based on communications by Rauhauser made in connection with an issue relating to McGibney." [Emphasis added.]
We did not hold, nor did the mandate command, that ViaView was entitled to pursue its claims for business disparagement and tortious interference with a business relationship. Our holding was a narrow one — that Appellee was not entitled to the remedies afforded to him under the TCPA under either of these two claims asserted against him by ViaView if they were not based on alleged communications made by Appellee and related to McGibney. See id.
Neither our holding nor the mandate revived the nonsuited claims. All of Appellants' claims remained nonsuited until the trial court signed a final judgment in this case on April 14, 2016. We overrule Appellants' eighth issue.
VI. ViaView's Defamation Claim
In their ninth issue, Appellants claim that ViaView cannot not be held liable under the TCPA because it had no standing to file suit for defamation and did not file suit for defamation against Appellee.
As to Appellants' additional argument that ViaView did not have standing to maintain a defamation action, we do not address it herein, as Appellants wholly failed to brief this contention on appeal. See Tex. R. App. P. 38.1(i). We overrule Appellants' ninth issue.
Having overruled Appellants' first, sixth, eighth, and ninth issues and part of Appellants' second issue, we affirm in part the trial court's judgment that some amount of attorney's fees should be awarded to Appellee. However, we sustain the portion of Appellants' second issue with regard to the amount of the attorney's fees awarded by the trial court and remand this portion of the case to the trial court once again to conduct a hearing on attorney's fees consistent with this opinion.
We likewise sustain Appellants' fourth issue with regard to the imposition of non-monetary sanctions, Appellants' third issue with regard to the $150,000 sanctions award, Appellants' fifth issue in part with regard to the trial court's "willfulness and maliciousness" findings, and Appellants' seventh issue with regard to the improper conditioning of appellate attorney's fees, and we vacate these portions of the trial court's judgment.