A Texas appellate court shot down a paralegal’s attempt to use state free speech laws to shield herself from privacy, libel, and slander claims brought by her former boss, an attorney whom she allegedly stole from, had disbarred, and attempted to poison with antifreeze.
Arturo Guzman sued his longtime paralegal Ashley Szymonek after waking up from a dayslong coma having been poisoned by her, and finding out that Szymonek created an elaborate scheme to get him disbarred and killed, the court said. Szymonek had also allegedly told his family and former office tenants that Guzman was depressed and not taking care of his law practice, so that his “suicide” would be believable.
Szymonek and her husband, Paul Szymonek, attempted to dismiss the lawsuit, which also included claims of assault, battery, common-law fraud, and breach of contract, under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, but a Texas trial court rejected the motion.
On Thursday, a three-judge panel for the Texas Court of Appeals, Third District, upheld the lower court’s judgment, shooting down Szymonek’s argument that her alleged lies about Guzman were “matters of public concern.” On appeal, the couple only attempted to dismiss the libel, slander, and invasion of privacy claims.
Szymonek had told Guzman numerous lies about how she was handling the business of the office, concealing information about taxes, office-building refinancing, malpractice insurance, and client matters, which do not fall under the umbrella of “public concern,” Chief Justice Darlene Byrne wrote in her opinion.
Matters of public concern involve a public figure or a matter of interest to the community, not private disputes, Bryne said.
“None of those alleged mistruths implicate matters of public concern because, although some of them did affect Guzman’s ability to practice law and his ability to defend himself against the claim made by his client, they did not address whether Guzman was competent to practice law or any other issue relevant to the public and only affected matters personal to Guzman and, by extension, his family,” Byrne wrote.
Nor can Szymonek’s gossip that Guzman had been abusing drugs and alcohol and was depressed be considered matters of public concern, since Szymonek didn’t attempt to report Guzman to the State Bar or the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program for incompetence or illegal behavior, Byrne said.
Byrne was joined in her opinion rejecting the motion for dismissal by Justices Thomas J. Baker and Edward Smith.
Guzman is represented by the Law Office of Mark E. Cusack PC. Szymonek is represented by Soltero Sapire Murrell PLLC.
The case is Szymonek v. Guzman, Tex. App., No. 03-20-00569, 2/10/22.
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