ALVARADO -- Bennie Dale Morris used to be a regular at Frank's Place -- eating meals and drinking coffee several times a day at the smoke-filled cafe -- until the restaurant owner's joking around got a little too personal.
In fact, Morris and longtime restaurant owner Phong Van Meter, who used to be friends, are now in a classic he-said, she-said legal standoff with First Amendment implications that may wind up before the Texas Supreme Court. At issue is whether her loud jokes in front of customers, in which she is accused of implying that Morris is gay -- a suggestion that he and his friend vehemently deny -- went too far.
"She is an evil old woman," Morris said of Van Meter.
She said, "He is lying, and all he wants is my money."
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The three-year legal battle between Morris, 75, and Van Meter, 73, began when Morris sued her in 2009, alleging defamation of character and "intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress." A District Court in Johnson County ordered Van Meter not only to pay him $5,000, but also not to make statements insinuating that Morris and his friend Glen Warren are "homosexual lovers."
The 10th Court of Appeals in Waco upheld the District Court ruling, leading Van Meter to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, saying there isn't enough evidence to prove that she defamed him or caused him anguish. Her attorney, Norman Maples, suggests what on the surface appears to be an argument between two former friends could have First Amendment consequences about what can and can't be said in public, even in jest. The Supreme Court has not taken the case.
"If the verdict is allowed to stand, it will have the most profound and dramatic effect on conversations and free speech," Maples wrote in his brief to the Supreme Court. "It will make joking remarks, hasty words made in anger, and mischievous statements an actionable tort and turn every barbershop, tavern and small town restaurant into litigation centers."
Bill Conover, an attorney representing Morris, doesn't believe that the case should go before the Supreme Court because of the lower courts' rulings.
"You can't say anything untrue without being liable. This was done by a person who didn't care how her customer felt. She didn't testify. I don't know what her motivation was to be so mean," Conover said. "Rumors spread like wildfire in a small town. He was concerned about his children and grandchildren. He has gotten a judgment. I don't think Bennie understands this could be a profound case."
War of words
Morris was a regular at Frank's Place for almost 20 years, sometimes eating there several times a day. Warren often joined him, and that's when the jokes started, he said.
Frank's Place is a bustling cafe where locals come for camaraderie and conversation over coffee and cigarettes. The roof is outlined in Christmas lights, and the windows are plastered with signs advertising international cuisine, chicken-fried chicken, home cooking and Mexican food.
It is on U.S. 67 in Alvarado, which is considered one of the oldest cities in Johnson County. Over the years, the city has seen benefits from the Barnett Shale natural gas drilling, which has boosted the business community, including the building of several chain hotels.
Warren and Morris have seen Alvarado grow, but they know what it is like to live in a small town.
When the joking started in 2007, Warren was going through a divorce and Morris had been single a long time. Morris said Van Meter would always ask him about his husband, girlfriend or wife in a loud voice so that other customers could hear. Van Meter would ask who was the man or who was the woman in their relationship, according to court documents. But no one, including Morris, testified that Van Meter ever said he is gay.
Morris testified that he asked Van Meter to stop the jokes because it was embarrassing and hurt his feelings. He also worried about Van Meter's comments affecting his reputation in Alvarado. But Morris said Van Meter replied that she wouldn't stop unless Morris sued.
Van Meter said that she wasn't joking about Morris and Warren and their sexual orientation, that she was just firing back at Morris' own ribbing toward her. She described the two men as being very close, so much that she described them as acting as if they were brothers.
"Bennie is single. Bennie would joke with me and ask. 'Where's your husband?' I would joke back. I treat everyone like my family," Van Meter said. "When I asked Bennie, 'Where's your wife?' he got mad," she said.
Van Meter said the situation got so bad that Morris and Warren wanted to run her out of town and sometimes used a racial slur when talking about her.
"Mr. Warren and Mr. Morris turned so mean. I say: 'Bennie, I love you. I'm not upset with you,'" she said.
Still, state District Judge Wayne Bridewell ruled a year ago that when Morris and Warren asked her to stop making these comments, Van Meter became even more vociferous in her comments in front of other cafe patrons, causing public embarrassment and emotional distress. He found that Van Meter defamed Morris and that her statements' meanings were unambiguous and required no evidence to explain their slanderous nature.
She "should have known that such statements about [Morris'] sexuality would set forth questions in the minds of patrons of the cafe," Bridewell wrote. He also said that Van Meter didn't testify at the trial to disprove the allegations against her, but that there was evidence that the statements she was making are not true.
Paul Watler, a Dallas attorney who handles First Amendment cases, said the rift between Morris and Van Meter looks like an unfortunate case that doesn't benefit any of the participants.
"It seems to be a case more about hard feelings and inappropriate remarks," Watler said. "It hardly rises to the level where it is actionable. Merely vexatious statements don't give rise to a defamatory claim or emotional distress. The bar is fairly high. It requires something that actually injures someone," he said.
Just like home
Van Meter said she and her husband, who died of cancer seven years ago, met when he was in the military and was stationed in Vietnam.
They came to the United States and drove through Alvarado almost 30 years ago.
Van Meter said the rolling hills reminded her of her native country, and she asked her husband to buy the restaurant for her.
"I know how to cook, and I wanted this place," she said.
Out of deference, she didn't rename the restaurant, which was known as Frank's Place.
Friends who gathered there said Van Meter goes out of her way to help people, often giving free meals to those with no money.
Patti Loper, who said she has been friends with Van Meter for more than 20 years, was a waitress at Frank's Place until she lost most of her vision.
She said Van Meter gave her another job washing dishes.
"Phong would never hurt anyone," she said.
Doug Lee, another regular customer who testified during the trial, said the lawsuit should never have gone forward.
"She joked with me about the same thing. Where's your girlfriend? We know the difference. It didn't bother me."
Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696