A judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit against Georgetown Mayor George Garver. The developers who filed the claim say they plan to appeal.
The judge dismissed the case based upon a 2011 law that raises the burden of proof for plaintiffs suing for defamation or slander. The lawsuit, filed in March by Bruce Barton and Gregory Hall, the owners of Longhorn Junction Land and Cattle, said Garver falsely accused them of threatening city employees and offering bribes to secure development approvals for real estate projects.
Garver wrote a letter to the city council in February that referred to an H-E-B grocery store proposed for Longhorn Junction at the corner of FM 1460 and Inner Loop. The letter said that Barton told city staff on Feb. 13 “if this project does not get done, people will lose their job and it will be time to clean house.”
Judge Phillip Vick dismissed the lawsuit in late June based on a motion by Garver’s lawyers, who cited the “Texas Citizen Participation Act.” The law allows anyone sued for defamation or slander to ask the person who sued them to immediately provide evidence to the court, said Mike Thompson, one of the mayor’s lawyers. If the court decides the evidence isn’t sufficient, the judge can dismiss the case, he said.
Garver had the right to present the letter to the city council because his mayoral duties include making sure “the law is carried out,” Thompson said. If someone wanted to sue Garver for defamation, there would have to be evidence that the letter was leaked to someone outside the city council, Thompson said.
That didn’t happen, Thompson said. Yes it did, said George Slade, the lawyer for Barton and Hall. “We have circumstantial evidence that he (Garver) released the letter to the media before he gave it to the council,” said Slade.
The leaking of the letter proves that Garver acted with malice and can be sued, Slade said.
Slade said he was limited in his ability to prove the letter was leaked, because under the Texas Citizen Participation Act, opposing lawyers don’t exchange records as they usually do in a process called discovery.
“What we don’t have and what we couldn’t get is proof of how the media got the letter before the city council,” he said.
Garver said he was very pleased about the court’s decision and declined further comment. Barton said he never made any threatening comments to city staff. “I didn’t have any issues with Georgetown before this,” Barton said.