Some legal pundits claim our legal system would suffer from disorder if judges made decisions without explanation. However, when judges exclude verbose legalese from their decisions, we have a quick understanding of a case’s disposition. “Plaintiff’s Motion For Summary Judgment As To Counterclaims is Denied,” tells me a legal dispute is likely headed to trial. While such simplicity provides zippo insight into the legal basis for a judge’s decision and consequently, which arguments have been accepted and which have been rejected, the purpose of litigation is to resolve disputes, and a clear directive from the court accomplishes that goal.
The above context is necessary to grasp the latest legal rulings in the defamation lawsuit Phaedra Parks filed against Angela Stanton. In the matter of Phaedra C. Parks v. Angela Stanton, 12-C-06313-3, the “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star sued Angela Stanton, alleging that the latter’s memoir, Lies of a Real Housewife: Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil, was defamatory.
According to Stanton’s attorney, James Radford, Stanton filed counterclaims for tortious interference with contract, defamation, and bad faith litigation, contending Parks’ lawsuit was frivolous and was designed to shut down the publication of truthful information. In Georgia, in order to prove tortious interference with contract, Stanton would have to show (1) a valid contractual relationship; (2) that the defendant (Parks) acted improperly and without privilege; (3) purposely and maliciously with the intent to injure; (4) that the defendant (Parks) induced a third party to not enter into or continue a business relationship with the plaintiff (Stanton); and (5) that the defendant’s (Parks’) conduct caused the plaintiff (Stanton) to suffer financial harm.
A counterclaim is a way for the defendant to turn the tables on the plaintiff and respond, “You owe me, too.” Parks filed motions to dismiss the counterclaims, and for summary judgment as to the counterclaims. In two new orders, the judge in this case found a dismissal of Defendant’s counterclaims to be inappropriate.
As to Plaintiff’s Motion To Dismiss Counterclaims and Plaintiff’s Motion For Summary Judgment As To Counterclaims, Judge Carla E. Brown was not exploratory or protracted in denying Parks’ motions. In fewer than 50 words, the judge ruled in favor of Angela Stanton and against Phaedra Parks. Judge Brown decided that the proper legal outcome here was to allow Defendant’s counterclaims against the Plaintiff to advance.
The “disposition” of a case is the action the court took. Here, in an Order dated March 17, 2015, Judge Brown states, “Having considered the Plaintiff’s brief, Defendant’s response brief, the record before it and the applicable and controlling law, DENIES Plaintiff’s Motion To Dismiss Counterclaims.”
Then, in an Order dated March 18, 2015, the judge again sided with Defendant: “Having considered the Plaintiff’s brief, Defendant’s response brief, the record before it and the applicable and controlling law, DENIES Plaintiff’s Motion For Summary Judgment As To Counterclaims.”
Therefore, Stanton’s counterclaims – which are demands for relief made by a defendant in a civil case against a plaintiff – are still alive.
Pretrial motions, including a motion to dismiss and motion for summary judgment, are extremely common in civil practice. They are also particularly important because they may impact the entire case before it gets to a jury. What are the differences between a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment? Think of a motion to dismiss as what happens before you run a race and a motion for summary judgment as what happens when you are halfway to the finish line.
A motion to dismiss asks the court to discharge either whole or part of a complaint, counterclaim, or crossclaim sometimes before the parties have conducted discovery. Here, Parks is telling the court that the material presented as part of Stanton’s counterclaim action is legally invalid. A motion to dismiss could be based on a range of legal inadequacies, including failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted or insufficient service of process. However, in deciding a motion to dismiss as to counterclaims, the court must view the facts set forth in the complaint in the light most favorable to Stanton.
Meanwhile a motion for summary judgment asks the court for final judgment on at least part of the case because there are no genuine issues of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. If the facts are not in dispute, there is no need for a trial. A motion for summary judgment essentially asks the court to consider undisputed facts and apply them to the law. To avoid summary judgment here on her counterclaims, Stanton provided the court with evidence that would be permitted at trial indicating how key facts are disputable.
Predicting how a court will rule is about as precise as reading tea leaves. But there are hints set forth in the March 17 and March 18 Orders that we should follow to their logical conclusions now that Stanton’s motion for summary judgment as to Parks’ original lawsuit will be heard on April 20, 2015 in the Gwinnett County State Court. It is fair to assume the court cannot enter judgment and must instead send the case to trial. A court can only enter summary judgment if the evidence demonstrates that there are no disputed issues of material fact to be tried. In denying Parks’ motions to dismiss and motion for summary judgment as to Defendant’s counterclaims, the Court is saying that there are issues of fact that should be resolved by the trier of fact.
To understand the law, we need to study the actual decisions judges have written. The Orders here are relatively short in length. There isn’t much elaboration. However, a reader following the arc of the decisions in this case knows that there are just too many factual disputes regarding the truth and validity of Stanton’s claims in her book that form the basis of Parks’ defamation lawsuit, thus precluding a finding of summary judgment for either party. In short, the parties are headed to trial.
Less can be more. Judge Carla E. Brown’s decision may provide comfort to those who side with Angela Stanton. If Stanton’s counterclaims were insufficient or legally unsupported, the judge in one fell swoop could have rejected them.
Motion practice has a strange way of backfiring for some parties because filing motions informs your opponent of your theory of the case, as well as your strategy. If you lose the motion, your opponent enjoys the advantage of knowing what your theories are, and how you intend to corroborate them.
Grab your gavel, join the conversation, and tell us what you think about these latest legal developments in Parks v. Stanton.
Stacy Slotnick, Esq. holds a J.D., cum laude, from Touro Law Center and a B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She performs a broad range of duties as an entertainment lawyer, including drafting and negotiating contracts; addressing and litigating trademark, copyright, and other IP issues; and directing the strategy and implementation of public relations, blogging, and social media campaigns.