Jennifer Olson brought a valuable person with her to meet me at a grocery store café for this interview –– her 6-year-old son. The brown-eyed boy sat quietly as I talked to his mom about a pending lawsuit against her. The Southlaker, who has two kids, mentioned how important her children are to her when explaining why she advocates for reforms to the family court system. Her argument is simple: change the laws for the safety of the kids and families involved.
“I’m just trying to make the system more transparent for everybody,” Olson said. “I don’t like bullies. I fight for the underdog, and I feel like the system is bullying Tarrant County families.”
Lori DeAngelis and Laurie Robinson claim they are the ones being bullied. The two Fort Worth attorneys recently filed a $100,000 lawsuit against the Protective Parents Coalition, a nonprofit devoted to family court reform which Olson cofounded two years ago, and Donna Tribunella, a fellow coalition member and mother of two. DeAngelis and Robinson claim they have been libeled and defamed by Olson and Tribunella on Facebook and on the coalition’s website. According to the lawsuit, Olson and Tribunella repeatedly posted comments accusing DeAngelis and Robinson of destroying case studies and collecting “unearned” attorney fees from clients. The plaintiffs deny the claims.
The plaintiffs did not respond to interview requests for this article.
Jim Ross, DeAngelis and Robinson’s attorney, said this case isn’t about free speech but about lying.
“We believe that the defendants have made statements that accuse my clients of specific acts of crimes when there have been no crimes committed in any way, shape, or form,” Ross said in a phone interview.
Tribunella said she uses the Protective Parents Coalition’s Facebook page as an outlet to rail against the court system and share her personal experiences. She said it helps her reach parents who feel they have been mistreated by local lawyers and judges. The forum, she said, lets other victims see that they are not alone in their struggle for justice.
“I cannot be quiet,” Tribunella said, adding that she would “speak as loud” as she can to “get something to happen,” meaning Tarrant County family court reform.
Olson believes that lawyers and judges sometimes leave kids in bad situations to profit from families and keep them returning to court. She has traveled to Austin and, along with many other reform advocates, has urged state representatives to change the laws. Locally, coalition members often attend family court hearings to document allegedly unfair practices.
The lawyers’ lawsuit, Olson said, is another form of harassment.
“I sleep fine at night because I know I’m doing the right thing,” she said.
DeAngelis and Robinson filed their lawsuit against Olson and Tribunella last month. The lawyers also asked for a temporary restraining order against the defendants, which was denied.
Nineteen supposedly harmful posts are listed in the lawsuit. One of them featured photos of the plaintiffs on the coalition’s website with the caption “worst family court Fort Worth appointed attorneys.”
Tribunella, in several comments as recorded in the lawsuit, says her youngest daughter was poorly represented by DeAngelis as an amicus attorney. Tribunella, via these comments, calls the lawyer many obscene names and specifically accuses her of perjury and of breaking client confidentiality.
Tribunella, via her comments as documented in the lawsuit, also suggests that DeAngelis and Robinson drank alcohol at work and while driving. Tribunella told me that that post was aimed at another lawyer and that she believes her words were twisted to fit the case. Tribunella also believes the plaintiffs circulate inflammatory language to call attention to themselves.
“If you want this to go away, why keep making yourselves the victims?” Tribunella said.
Tribunella said she deleted her comments. Olson’s posts have also been deleted.
Ross said that doesn’t make a difference.
“Deleting them doesn’t mean they weren’t posted and made public in the first place,” he said, “so she’s still liable for the posting that she did originally.”
Libel and defamation cases based on online posts do not happen frequently in North Texas, according to published reports, but some in Texas stick out. In 2012, a couple in Clarksville, a town about 170 miles northwest of Fort Worth, was awarded $13.78 million in a defamation lawsuit against once-anonymous commenters, who referred to Mark and Rhonda Lesher on the open forum Topix.com as sexual deviants and drug dealers, most likely motivated by earlier, legally unfounded accusations of sexual assault against the couple.
And in 2014, Robert Kinney of Austin wanted comments about him by his former employer on an employment and legal news blog to be taken down, so he sued. Though the case was dismissed in a Travis County court, it landed in the Texas Supreme Court by virtue of an appeal by Kinney. The justices reversed the county court decision and ordered the statements to be deleted.
There is not a libel law specifically regarding social media posts.
Both defendants are planning to fight back. Fort Worth lawyer Greg Westfall is representing the coalition and Olson. Tribunella has yet to hire an attorney but is considering representing herself.
Olson said she’s ready for the battle. “We honestly see this as an opportunity to let everyone see what’s really happening” in the family court system, she said.
The next step in the legal process is for the defendants to respond legally. Westfall said he will file at least a general denial of the plaintiffs’ claims.