Family law attorneys sue watchdog group over social media posts

Fifth floor foyer in the Tarrant County Family Law Center
Fifth floor foyer in the Tarrant County Family Law Center Star-Telegram archives

Two attorneys are suing a watchdog group dedicated to reforming the Tarrant County family court system and alleging libel and slander, saying it used social media posts to falsely accuse them of unethical and illegal activities.

Attorneys Lori DeAngelis and Laurie Robinson accuse the Southlake-based Protective Parents Coalition, its co-founder Jennifer Olson, and Donna Tribunella, one of the group’s followers, of defaming them by publishing malicious comments without any evidence, court records state.

Among the allegations is that DeAngelis and Robinson unethically colluded with Tarrant County judges to receive higher attorneys fees and more business while also conspiring with caseworkers to destroy critical social study reports that are part of the court’s records, the lawsuit states.

One posting by Tribunella that is quoted in the lawsuit attacks Robinson for “showing up drunk as a skunk” at a family’s home while serving as a child’s attorney during a custody case. Robinson and DeAngelis have denied all of the allegations made against them.

The posts appeared on the Protective Parents Coalition’s website and Facebook page, which the group describes in court records as an online newspaper or blog about the family courts. Tribunella, who lives in Burleson, published material on her Facebook page, records show.

“We have a group of people who say they are exercising their free speech rights but there are boundaries that you do not cross,” said Jim Ross, the attorney representing DeAngelis and Robinson. “They are slamming and criticizing to the point of accusing people of crimes ...”

“Some of this stuff you shake your head and say, ‘What in the world are you talking about?’”

Ross’ clients are seeking an injunction to prevent the group from publishing any additional posts. In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, they also are seeking more than $100,000 in damages.

Tribunella said she is just exercising her right to free speech in her posts. She has had a contentious child custody case in the Tarrant County courts and questioned the actions of Robinson and others, according to court records.

“Freedom of speech is a fundamental right afforded to all citizens,” Tribunella said in an email. “Advocating and watchdog groups are geared for judicial reform, to gain greater access to transparency when one’s children, family and property are affected.”

“This suit will unleash many more questions than answers into the multiple departments within Tarrant County that should be transparent,” she wrote.

The Star-Telegram was unable to talk to Olson, but the attorney for the Protective Parents Coalition said they will “vigorously” fight the current lawsuit. The group previously convinced a judge to dismiss a petition seeking to take depositions and conduct discovery that could have been used to prepare for this lawsuit, said attorney Greg Westfall.

“Truth is a defense and a defamation lawsuit gets to go both ways. So, they can look for a fight,” Westfall said. “These ladies who make up this organization are trying to reform how the family courts do their business.”

Court watchers

The Protective Parents Coalition was started by Olson after she went through a divorce and custody battle that raised questions with her about how the local family courts operate, a member of the group said. The group was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2014, according to state records.

The group was formed to “support parents and children who do not have a voice outside the courtroom,” and to help those who have dealt with family violence and child abuse but are forced to arbitrate their cases in family court, Olson said in a deposition in January.

As part of its activities, the group established a Court Watching Program that sends volunteers to observe and take notes in court, Olson said. After making their observations, the group’s staff makes recommendations to improve the court system “from the litigant’s perspective,” she said.

The court watchers have not been well received by court personnel and attorneys who work in the family courts, with two associate family court judges kicking them out of the courtroom, she said.

Marie Howard said that when she went to observe a hearing and was questioned about her identity, she was suddenly sworn in as a witness — even though she wasn’t involved in the case — and then told she couldn’t be in the courtoom until she was called to testify. She also couldn’t leave the courthouse until the hearing was completed.

“They pretty much had their way with that case and no one was there to witness it,” said Howard, who lives in Keller and serves on the group’s board of directors.

In another incident, Howard said she was observing a trial and had to go through a search each time she left the courtroom to make sure that she didn’t have a recording device. “They want to stop the court watchers and they don’t want any citizen whistleblowers calling them out,” she said.

Generally, the Protective Parents Coalition finds that the Tarrant County family court system is “deeply flawed” and has identified many examples of “judges, attorneys and court staff misusing and abusing their power,” Olson said in her deposition.

Kevin Schmid, president of the Tarrant County Family Law Bar Association, said he hasn’t had any personal knowledge or interaction with the protective parents group, but he said he’s never seen DeAngelis or Robinson behave in an unprofessional manner.

“They are both highly regarded in the family law community,” Schmid said.

The veteran family law attorney also defended the local court system, saying that it is “considered to be one of the best in the state and our judges among the most qualified.” Schmid added that everyone involved take their jobs seriously in “highly contentious” cases.

“The decisions our judges are called upon to make affect lives and not just dollars,” he said.

Passionate concerns

The Protective Parents Coalition was able to get the previous petition filed by Ross dismissed in February by arguing that the coalition’s activities are allowed under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, which protects citizens who speak out on matters of public concern from retaliatory lawsuits.

The legislation gives the courts the power to promptly toss out a legal action if it determines that the lawsuit impinges on constitutional rights and intends to intimidate or silence them through what is known as an anti-SLAPP motion, or a directive to dismiss a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

The Protective Parents Coalition said its work is a “matter of public concern” since it pertains to the community’s well-being, health or safety and involves a public official or public figure and a service provided in the marketplace.

But the group simply is trying to escape liability for defamatory statements and the Texas Citizens Participation Act does not allow someone to directly state or imply that someone has committed crimes, fraud or behaved in an unethical manner, according to Ross and court records.

Ross, who is appealing the earlier decision, states in court records that the Texas Citizens Participation Act requires not only “clear and specific evidence” of its accusations.

“Everyone has a right to be passionate about a cause that is important to them,” Ross said. “What they don’t have a right to do is falsely accuse people of committing crimes in a public forum. That’s is not protected in the Constitution and not by the anti- SLAPP motion.”

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB