ANGLETON, Texas – The owners of an Angleton animal sanctuary have been ordered to pay approximately $159,000 in court fines after a judge dismissed their defamation lawsuit against online critics.
Renee King-Sonnen and her husband, Tommy, a former cattle raiser, now run what they describe as a vegan animal sanctuary. It’s a non-profit called the Rowdy Girl Sanctuary.
In February, the couple sued former donors and volunteers who criticized the charity finances and animal care on a Facebook a page titled “The Real Rowdy Girl Revealed.”
The couple claimed in the lawsuit that their critics engaged in a campaign to "bully, harass, ruin, and destroy,” the non-profit.
“They were hurting our donations and our character. They were defaming our character, our good name,” Renee said.
Last week, Houston judge Caroline Baker dismissed the case with prejudice, and ordered Renee and Tommy to pay three defendants approximately $159,000 for attorney’s fees under a state statute meant to stop frivolous lawsuits, known as the anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute.
The lawsuit accused one defendant, Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna, a child psychiatrist from Dallas, of posting a single entry on the Facebook page that reads:
“I have an activist friend who says she knew from the very beginning that RGS was a scam. As far as I know, she has never even heard of the RRGR Facebook page.”
Ramakrishna’s Houston attorney, Adam Milasincic, said the case is about free speech and that the intent of the lawsuit was meant to have a chilling effect.
“That’s why so many people were sued, and like in my client’s case, (from) a single post (to) send a message to other critics that you don’t want to cross us,” Milasincic said.
Renee said she and her husband are still considering options with their attorneys.
Under the court order, if she should decide to appeal the decision, it could trigger more fines.
Here is a release issued from the sanctuary:
"Unfortunately, the court ruled on a motion filed by three defendants who sought dismissal of the action claiming it sought to suppress First Amendment free speech. The court ruled the action should be dismissed and that RGS, King-Sonnen and Sonnen should pay the three defendants attorney's fees, costs and sanctions totaling $159,000.
"This ruling is unjust and erroneous. Unfortunately, in our legal system, sometimes judges make bad rulings," said Drew L. Alexis, an attorney and member of RGS' board.
"I am afraid the court gave its blessing to those who wish to assault us with more harmful, defamatory statements in their campaign to tear down an organization trying to bring justice to farm animals," said King-Sonnen.
"RGS is considering an appeal.
"We may appeal as our lawyers have told us this ruling makes no sense," said King-Sonnen. "At the same time, I want to put this matter behind us and move forward with the work that we are doing. I know in the end, whether justice is had in the court or not, we are going to continue to advance our mission to protect farm animals from cruelty. And I know that the truth is on our side, and not on the side of those spewing hate on social media."