A Houston immigration lawyer’s defamation claims against a prominent media consultant and a Dubai multi-millionaire were upheld after review by the Fourteenth District Court of Appeals.
Former television investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino, a media consultant in the Houston area, and Hamza Ali of Dubai appealed a Harris County trial court’s denial of their separate motions to dismiss a lawsuit filed against them by Azhar M. Chaudhary on behalf of himself and his law firm.
According to the opinion delivered by Justice Randy Wilson, Dolcefino, primarily relying on Ali’s statements, produced and posted a YouTube video titled “Would You Hire This Lawyer?”
In addition, Dolcefino and Ali contacted three of Chaudhary’s clients, accusing him of various acts of wrongdoing and those contacts resulted in adverse outcome to the law firm’s business. Ali and Dolcefino, in two separate instances, also confronted Chaudhary at his children’s bus stop and were alleged to have made defamatory statements, the opinion states.
Chaudhary filed a 10-count lawsuit against Dolcefino and Ali for civil conspiracy, statutory libel, libel per se, invasion of privacy, slander per se, intentional infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference with current business relations, tortious interference with prospective business relations, business disparagement, negligence, and assault.
Ali is a successful Houston real estate developer and owner of Gray Spear Capital.
According to Chaudhary’s attorneys, Richard Schwartz and Jordan Curry of Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr, Ali put Chaudhary on an $810,000 retainer to secure alien residency status for himself and his family, and also to defend him in proceedings before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Ali was being investigated for financial crimes, including money laundering, because he moved at least $8 million from his accounts in Arab countries.
There were also suits against Ali and his family in state and federal courts involving civil forfeitures, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and the Patriot Act, the Chaudhary brief said.
“Over the course of almost a year, Chaudhary expended more than 1,700 hours at an hourly rate of $500 on matters for Ali and his family, equaling a total fee of at least $850,000,” Chaudhary claimed.
In October 2017, the U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services requested additional information in connection with Ali’s permanent residency application and Ali promptly terminated Chaudhary and asked for a refund of the retainer.
“When Chaudhary refused, Ali filed a grievance complaint against Chaudhary with the State Bar of Texas, which was dismissed, and a lawsuit over the fees, which remains pending,” Justice Wilson noted.
Addressing the evidence Chaudhary provided to the trial court, Wilson recited how the defendants made oral and written statements on the internet implying Chaudhary scammed Ali, was not to be trusted, was a bad lawyer, was scamming the Houston immigrant community, was a sham who did not have the level of education he claimed, made false claims on his business websites, attempted to blackmail or scare Ali, didn’t perform any legal work for Ali, and lied on a filed court pleading.
The court of appeals concluded that for most of Chaudhary’s claims he had established a prima facie case. The court’s judgment reversed the trial court on Chaudhary’s invasion of privacy claims against both defendants, on the intentional infliction of emotional distress and on the tortious interference based on alleged current contracts.
Justice Wilson, in his analysis, emphasized that the court found it “unique and significant” that Chaudhary produced clear and specific evidence of the defendants’ unlawful conduct and the defendants did not offer controverting evidence.
“Only on appeal does Dolcefino attempt to raise a truth defense and fair comment privilege defense. Dolcefino asserted no privileges or defenses in the lower court, and yet even if he did assert what he attempts to raise on appeal, the record is clear that neither Ali nor Dolcefino provided any evidence or valid argument as a matter of law in support of these defenses,” Wilson wrote.
Jeff Diamont, representing Dolcefino, said he disagreed with the court’s analysis, in part because it went beyond what should be considered at the prima facie stage for a Texas Citizens Participation Act (anti-strategic lawsuits against public participation).
“In a TCPA situation, the only question is does the plaintiff have any evidence to make a prima facie case. It is not designed to look at the evidence the defendant would have to rebut the claims. That’s for stage two, which would be the summary judgment.,” Diamont said.
“The bulk of the statements were not statements of Dolcefino. He was reporting on what other people said,” Diamont said.
Ali’s attorney is James D. Pierce. He did not respond to a request for comment.
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