Background

Barnes v. Kinser, 05-19-00481-CV  (Tex. App. – Dallas April 7, 2020, no pet. h.) was a divorce gone bad. After the divorce, wife sued her attorneys for legal malpractice in: 1. negotiation of a marital property agreement (MPA), and 2. representation in the divorce.

Facts

The attorneys, Kinser & Bates, LLP, moved for arbitration under a written arbitration agreement. The trial court sent the representation claim to arbitration but not the negotiation claim. Wife won the arbitration and Kinser had to disgorge their fees. That part of the case was severed and the negotiation claim proceeded.
Husband intervened and claimed that the fees disgorged by Kinser were community property and he wanted his share. Kinser filed a motion for sanctions against husband under Chapter 10, TCPRC §10.001-.006 and Rule 13, TRCP. Kinser alleged Barnes’s petition was groundless, had no basis in law or fact, and had no evidentiary support. Kinser later amended the counterclaim to add an allegation that the suit was filed for purposes of harassment. Barnes filed a motion to dismiss the motions for sanctions under the Texas Anti-SLAPP, TCPA, law. The judge denied the motion and Barnes appealed.

Conclusion and Disposition

(T)he TCPA’s definition of “legal action” refers to a procedural vehicle for vindication of a legal claim.

Sanctions, on the other hand, serve the purpose of securing compliance with the rules of civil procedure, punishing violators, and deterring similar misconduct by others…Both Chapter 10 and Rule 13 allow sanctions for abuses of the pleading process…Chapter 10 allows sanctions for pleadings filed with an improper purpose or that lack legal or factual support…Rule 13 allows sanctions for pleadings that are groundless and brought in bad faith, intended to harass, or false when made.

Sanctions may not be imposed based on the legal merit of a pleading or motion…Rather, the focus of a sanctions inquiry is the conduct of the party or lawyer at the time the pleading was filed…The question is whether, using an objective standard, the party and its counsel made a reasonable inquiry into the legal and factual basis of the claim before filing it…Thus, we cannot equate a request for sanctions under Chapter 10 or Rule 13, whether filed as a counterclaim or a motion, with a “procedural vehicle for the vindication of a legal claim.”

The motion for sanctions in this case does not seek to vindicate a legal right outside the litigation context.

Seeking sanctions for misconduct in litigation, including the filing of an allegedly frivolous or groundless lawsuit, is not a legal action under the TCPA.