Does the First Amendment protect the right to burn the American flag? Well, it depends. Consider three scenarios:

  1. A Boy Scout troop burns a worn-out American flag because that is the proper and respectful way to dispose of it. See 4 U.S.C. § 8(k) (“The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”)
  2. A radical burns the flag at a lawful protest while yelling “down with American imperialism” (which tells you the radical is probably old enough to qualify for Medicare).
  3. A teenager lights an American flag in the school gym as a prank, setting off the sprinkler system and fire alarm.

One of these things is not like the other. The first two examples arguably involve some expressive component. Burning the flag is intended to express a certain viewpoint. But in the third example, there is no real communication, just conduct. Thus, the teenager would be hard pressed to argue that his flag-burning was a communication protected by the First Amendment.

But of course, communication is conduct, so we shouldn’t overstate the distinction. The point is that some conduct does not involve communication.

Conduct vs. communication in TCPA litigation

This point is important in other areas of law, too. Like, oh I don’t know, the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA).

Coincidentally, I may be arguing about the TCPA in court today, and I will give a presentation on it tomorrow for the Houston Bar Association.

The conduct vs. communication distinction can be critical in TCPA litigation. How? First, let’s back up and review what we’ve learned before:

  • The TCPA is an “anti-SLAPP” statute that allows a defendant to file a motion to dismiss that requires the plaintiff to offer evidence to support all elements of its claim.
  • The TCPA applies to any lawsuit that is based on a communication about a “matter of public concern,” which can be just about anything.
  • The TCPA is not limited to its stated purpose of protecting constitutional rights; Texas courts have interpreted the TCPA’s definitions broadly to apply to just about any type of lawsuit.

As a result, the TCPA has fundamentally changed Texas litigation, including departing employee litigation, which I often handle. It has also produced some of Five Minute Law’s greatest hits, like A SLAPP in the Face to Texas Trade Secrets Lawsuits, How to Kill a TCPA Motion, and Houston Judge Calls Out Texas Supreme Court’s Simplistic “Textualist” Approach to TCPA.

As the promotional announcement for my presentation says, the TCPA has “swept through the Texas litigation world like a prairie fire.” Now that’s good marketing.

But sooner or later, you know the Empire is going to strike back. Companies that want to enforce their non-competes and protect their (alleged) trade secrets are going to push back on broad application of the TCPA. But what can they do?

One option is to try to “plead around” the TCPA. I touched on this in Much Ado About Nothing? The TCPA broadly applies to claims that are based on communications. So maybe you can avoid the TCPA by alleging conduct, not communication.

Does the TCPA apply to securities litigation?

This approach was successful in a recent case that involved yet another type of lawsuit, Texas Securities Act litigation. I also have some experience with that, having co-authored Claims and Defenses Under the Texas Securities Act, which critics have praised as the longest Texas Securities Act paper they have ever seen. But I digress.

The case was Smith v. Crestview.[1] It involved a failed investment in a scheme to develop a vaginal rejuvenation product derived from human amniotic cells.

This reminds me of the sage advice my grandpappy gave me before he passed: “Put your money into real estate. They can’t make any more of it. Oh, and one more thing. Don’t ever invest in an unproven vaginal rejuvenation product derived from human amniotic cells.”

But seriously, while the product was unusual, the basic fact pattern was all too familiar. The crucial conversation went something like this:[2]

Armstrong: Hi, Mr. Crestview Managing Partner. I’m Mary Armstrong. I’ve got a great investment opportunity for your company.

Crestview: Well, that sounds interesting, but we adhere to a conservative investment strategy, so I’ll need a lot of information.

Armstrong: No problem. I own a startup called NuVivo Bioscience Solutions. We’ve got a novel product derived from human amniotic cells.

Crestview: That sounds like a pretty speculative investment. How do I know we’ll get a good return?

Armstrong: Let me tell you what we’ve already done. We’ve manufactured prototypes. We’ve hired doctors at Stanford to test it. We have a sales force ready to go. Several surgeons have verbally committed to using the product, and we should be ready to sell it in less than 120 days.

Crestview: 120 days? What about FDA approval?

Armstrong: That’s the beauty of it. It’s a human-cellular or tissue-based product, so it’s not subject to federal testing, approval, and labeling regulations.

Crestview: Ok, that sounds good, but what if it doesn’t work?

Armstrong: Oh, I know it works. I had myself injected with the product, and it worked just like we expected.

Crestview: I’m glad to hear that but still, you’re just one person. I don’t think I can risk our partners’ money on something this risky.

Armstrong: Wait, did I mention that Dr. Jesse Smith has agreed to provide the product? We even have his name on our proposed website design.

Crestview: Dr. Smith, the renowned Fort Worth plastic surgeon? Why didn’t you say so?

Crestview then decided to invest and wired $500,000 to Armstrong’s company.

Let’s just pause here for a moment. Those of you who have experience with securities litigation probably know where this is going.

The rest of you will be shocked to learn that:

  • After receiving the half-million-dollar investment, Armstrong stopped communicating with Crestview.
  • Armstrong spent almost half of the 500 grand, mostly on personal expenses, including a trip to Vegas where she met Dr. Smith. [I will omit the joke my wife cracked when I shared this fact from the case.]
  • Armstrong’s company made no sales of the product.

If these allegations are true, then Crestview probably has a pretty good case against Armstrong. But do you think Armstrong is good for a judgment in excess of $500,000? Probably not.

Does aiding and abetting require a communication?

So, Crestview did what investors often do in these cases. It found a deeper pocket, suing Dr. Smith for aiding and abetting Armstrong’s securities fraud.[3]

Dr. Smith’s lawyers apparently read Five Minute Law, because they knew that Texas courts have broadly applied the TCPA. They filed a TCPA motion to dismiss, contending that the Texas Securities Act claim was “designed to chill Dr. Smith’s First Amendment rights of free speech and association.” The trial court denied the motion, and Dr. Smith appealed.

Crestview’s lawyers, no doubt remembering the flag-burning case from their Con Law course, responded with the conduct vs. communications distinction. They argued that the securities claim was based on Smith’s conduct, not his communications, and the Fort Worth Court of Appeals agreed.

The Court of Appeals relied heavily on Crestview’s pleading:

In this case, Crestview specifically and narrowly alleged that Smith’s actions aided Armstrong in her violations of the TSA, not his communications. None of the allegations leveled against Smith referred to communications with Armstrong. Rather, Crestview focused on Smith’s actions and inactions . . .

Aha! So you can plead around the TCPA. Just be sure to allege only conduct, not communication, by the defendant. For example, in a trade secrets case just allege that the former employee used the employer’s trade secrets after going to work for the competitor, rather than pleading that the employee disclosed the trade secrets to the competitor.

Not so fast. The Crestview court was careful to “recognize that artful pleading cannot be a detour around the TCPA.” Still, the court rejected Smith’s argument that the “actual, yet unpleaded” nature of Crestview’s claim was based on communications with Armstrong.

It appears two factors were important to the court. First, while Smith testified at his deposition that he had discussions with Armstrong about the product, “these discussions are not the basis of Crestview’s narrow claim against him.”

Second, the court did not want to open the floodgates: “The practical effect of Smith’s position—any action he took as an aider under the TSA necessarily involved communications—would seem to extend the definition of communication, and thus the reach of the TCPA, to noncommunications.”

So, Crestview teaches us that the TCPA does not apply to a claim for aiding and abetting liability that is not expressly based on communications between the “aider” and the primary actor.

We can build, a beautiful city . . .

The Crestview holding does not strike me as unreasonable. But it’s a little unsatisfying.

The first problem with the Crestview approach is that communication is implicit in just about any conduct someone can get sued for, but the case doesn’t really tell us how to distinguish between a claim that is based on the communication and one that isn’t. Perhaps the test is whether the cause of action could survive without proof of the communication. Or is it whether the communication was a factor that motivated the plaintiff to sue? We don’t know.

The second problem is more practical. The Crestview holding seems to open the door to plaintiffs “pleading around” the TCPA through “artful pleading.”

Imagine that I burn an American flag outside the Houston City Hall to protest the City’s rules against food trucks parking on downtown streets. To retaliate, the City charges me with burning property without a permit and, to try to get around the First Amendment, the City doesn’t say anything about any communication. Would that legal action be based on communication, or conduct?

As much as I like taco trucks, let’s not test it.

___________________________________________________________________

IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. The only time he was part of any flag-burning was in Boy Scouts.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] Smith v. Crestview NuV LLC, __ S.W.3d __, No. 02-18-00220-CV, 2018 WL 6215763 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Nov. 29, 2018, no pet. h.).

[2] Obviously I’m making up this dialog and have no knowledge of how the discussion actually went. But this does give you the gist of the facts recited in the court’s opinion.

[3] The Texas Securities Act does not actually use the words “aiding and abetting,” but the traditional phrase just has a nice ring to it.

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