Gold Star family members win lawsuit brought by former Ft. Hood official
A Texas appeals court affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a former Fort Hood official against four women whose loved ones died serving in the military.
The Jan. 11 ruling in favor of the four Gold Star family members puts an end to the strain they felt since former Fort Hood official Theresa Johnson sued them in the fall of 2017. Johnson accused them of making false statements about her on social media and to the press.
Johnson’s appeal was filed too late under the law, the Third Court of Appeals found. The ruling upholds an earlier dismissal of the defamation suit and combined award of $10,000 to the four Gold Star family members under Texas’ anti-SLAPP law, meant to encourage free speech and deter frivolous lawsuits. The district court order specified up to $20,500 in attorneys’ fees if the matter was appealed to the Supreme Court.
“Each of our Gold Star families goes through profound pain following the loss of their loved ones. For anyone to go after them in the courts, just to bully and intimidate, is beyond reprehensible,” said Jim Moriarty, one of the two Houston attorneys who represented the women. Moriarty is a former Marine and Gold Star father.
Moriarty was joined on the legal team by former Marine John Urquhart.
“Our Gold Star families deserve our utmost respect,” said Urquhart, who completed two combat tours in Iraq. “We will fight tooth-and-nail to protect them.”
Johnson brought suit against the Gold Star family members in November 2017 after a falling-out over changes to the details of an event Johnson organized, the annual boot run to memorialize fallen service members. Johnson, who worked at the Fort Hood Fisher House, had opposed a move to change the event date and tried to rally the women and other Gold Star families to her side. After Johnson was unsuccessful, she sued the women.
According to her lawsuit, she was removed from her position at Fisher House on Oct. 30, 2017. Johnson sued the women Nov. 14.
The Gold Star family members feel relieved to put the episode behind them.
Monica Velez, who lives in the Austin, Texas, area, said the ordeal was bittersweet. She was joined by family and friends at a March hearing in the case in Bell County.
“Having Jim on our side, having John on our side, meant a lot to me,” Velez said. “I know that the people that supported me were blown away by their professionalism, their experience, but more-so their compassion and understanding for what our families were dealing with.”
Velez’ brother, Army Cpl. Jose A. “Freddy” Velez, was based at Fort Hood, while her brother, Army Spc. Andrew Velez, was based at Fort Irwin in California. They died in 2004 and 2006, respectively.
Patrice Wise, who lives outside Indianapolis, Ind., kept information about the lawsuit from her family, wanting to protect them from the stress.
“I get to tell people now about these incredible attorneys that took on this case, expecting nothing from four Gold Star families because they were passionate about the case and thought it was wrong,” Wise said. “These two lawyers who came in and swooped us up, they’re my heroes.”
Wise lost her son, Army Pfc. Dakota Lee Stump, in 2016.
Katy Miller, of Indianapolis, Ind., said it was important to her to push back against what she saw as bullying: “I felt like it wasn’t just our family in this. I feel like when you’re attacking one Gold Star family, you’re attacking all of us.”
Miller said the legal team “always reached out and talked to us or would email us and make sure we were doing OK. It wasn’t like some attorneys that act like they don’t care.”
Miller lost her brother-in-law, Army Pfc. Christopher E. Hudson, in 2004.
Kylie Riney, of Farmington, Ill., said she felt like freedom of speech, and her own good name, had been protected. Riney lost her husband, Army Sgt. Douglas James Riney, in 2016.
“I did nothing wrong,” Riney said. “If I didn’t stand up for it, who would have?”
Individuals who are sued may be shielded from financial losses by homeowners’ insurance, which in some cases will pay any awards or legal fees. But hiring an attorney via an insurance policy can also complicate and drag out a case.
Moriarty and Urquhart chose to represent the Gold Star family members directly, with no charge for services or case expenses, as a way to serve the military community.