Texas Supreme Court Grants Netflix Permission to Appeal Defamation Ruling


Netflix and documentary director Alex Gibney asked the Supreme Court of Texas to review a case of libel brought by a court-appointed guardian in San Antonio. The court agreed.

Tonya Barina sued, saying that the Netflix show “Dirty Money” hurt her reputation by talking about the court-appointed care of Charles Thrash.

It was on March 11, 2020, that the Guardians Inc. show about Mr. Thrash, 86, played, but it is no longer on Netflix.

Along with Netflix and Mr. Gibney, the guardian, Ms. Barina, named as suspects lawyer Phil Ross, his lover and paralegal Jo Anne Rivera, and Mr. Thrash’s girlfriend Laura Martinez. Also charged were Ms. Martinez’s adult children from a former marriage.

Netflix, Mr. Gibney, and their producing partners filed an appeal with the state’s highest court after the Fourth District Court of Appeals decided in favor of Ms. Barina.

Netflix and Mr. Gibney’s attorney Katherine M. Bolger told the Texas Supreme Court in their Sept. 15 Brief on the Merits that the Fourth District Court of Appeals erred in not dismissing Ms. Barina’s defamation claim because the television program about the Thrash guardianship is substantially true.

“The Program never asserts or implies that Barina broke the law when she liquidated Thrash’s estate or offered to step down as guardian in exchange for 50% of the estate, let alone brand her likeness with the word ‘CRIME’,” stated Ms. Bolger in her letter. “

To the contrary, the Program makes clear that guardians like Barina ‘exploit’ their wards legally because their actions have been sanctioned and authorized by various courts—including the appellate court in this case—at every turn.”

Texas Supreme Court Grants Netflix Permission to Appeal Defamation Ruling

Ms. Barina’s lawyers allege in their Nov. 10 opposition to Netflix and Mr. Gibney’s Petition for Review that Netflix and Mr. Gibney presented the accusations against Tonya [Barina] as facts rather than opinions and that Netflix used Tonya [Barina] as a national example of exploitation by abusive guardians.

“No one mentions the judicial finding that Charlie’s guardianship estate was depleted by hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of the improper legal machinations by Laura [Martinez] and [Phil] Ross,” Ms. Barina’s attorneys stated.

Attorneys Charles Baruch, Carl J. Kolb, and Glenn Deadman represent Ms. Barina.

As previously reported, Mr. Thrash had run an automobile business on West Avenue for 50 years and had made headlines for marrying Ms. Martinez, his divorcee fiancée, without the consent of his court-appointed guardian.

According to Ms. Barina’s original lawsuit, in May 2019, Attorney Ross and his client Ms. Martinez were fined $222,974 by the Bexar County Probate Court for allegedly conspiring to defraud the Thrash estate.

Mr. Ross and Ms. Martinez both dispute the accusations.

“A reasonable viewer would see the Program’s critical depiction of Barina for what it is: an outgrowth of Petitioners’ belief that the guardianship system is structured to financially benefit guardians rather than protect wards,” Bolger explained more in Netflix and Mr. Gibney’s Brief on the Merits. “

As this Court put it earlier this year ‘no speech more deserves and requires protection from governmental censure than that critical of the government and its decisions’.”

Mr. Gibney and Netflix have until December 27 to file a final Reply Brief on the Merits for consideration by the Texas Supreme Court.

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