The second-ever anti-SLAPP petition filed under the Tennessee Public Participation Act (TPPA)—Tennessee’s new anti-SLAPP statute—has officially been granted, accompanied by the largest fee-shifting award ($26,500.00) ever awarded in a defamation case filed in Tennessee. The final order—granted by Davidson County Circuit Court Judge Joe P. Binkley—comes on the heels of a February 2020 ruling by Wilson County General Sessions Judge Barry Tatum granting the first-ever petition to dismiss a plaintiff’s claims under the TPPA.
The ruling comes after a bizarre set of circumstances in which a Nashville man, Carl Vonhartman, sued a woman, Kortni Butterton, who had rejected him on a dating app after she called 911, sought an order of protection against him, and testified at the order of protection hearing. In response to the lawsuit, the woman filed a 361-page, 18-exhibit TPPA Petition to Dismiss all of Mr. Vonhartman’s claims and sought an award of attorney’s fees and sanctions regarding them. In advance of the scheduled hearing on the petition, Mr. Vonhartman stipulated “that his Complaint failed to state any cognizable claim for relief against the Defendant,” that Ms. Butterton’s TPPA petition should be granted, and that “judgment shall be entered in favor of the Defendant against the Plaintiff in the amount of twenty-six thousand and five hundred dollars ($26,500.00)—inclusive of all available claims for attorney’s fees, discretionary costs, and sanctions—pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 20-17-107(a), Tennessee Code Annotated § 20- 12-119(c), and Tennessee Code Annotated § 4-21-1003(c).” A formal notice that the $26,500.00 judgment had been paid and received in full was filed with the court by Daniel A. Horwitz, Ms. Butterton’s attorney, yesterday afternoon.
“Ms. Butterton is pleased to have prevailed spectacularly against this shameful SLAPP-suit and to receive an unprecedented $26,500.00 in attorney’s fees and sanctions from the man who unsuccessfully sued her,” said Horwitz. “Tennessee’s new anti-SLAPP statute makes bogus lawsuits like this one extremely costly for those who seek to intimidate others through the legal process, so let this outcome serve as a stark warning to anyone else who is thinking about making the same mistake.”
“This case should also send a clear message to anyone who believes they are in danger,” Horwitz added. “If you believe someone is going to hurt you, do not be afraid to seek help, and do not let fear of a bogus lawsuit deter you from protecting yourself. Anyone can file a frivolous lawsuit, but in the event that that happens, rest assured that the law will protect you.”
Selected case documents and media coverage of the case appear below.
Selected Case Documents:
Selected Media Coverage:
Daniel Horwitz is a free speech lawyer who represents clients across Tennessee. If you would like to purchase a consultation from him, you can do using the form below.
On July 1, 2019, the Tennessee Public Participation Act—Tennessee’s first meaningful anti-SLAPP statute—took effect. The statute dramatically expanded the scope of speech that receives heightened legal protection in Tennessee. It also equips people targeted by Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (“SLAPP-suits”) with important tools to secure the dismissal of meritless claims early on in litigation. Perhaps most importantly, the TPPA allows prevailing defendants to get their full attorney’s fees paid by a losing plaintiff if a petition to dismiss is granted. Previously, prevailing defendants were (generally) only able to recover a maximum of $10,000 under Tennessee’s frivolous lawsuit statute, and they were only eligible to do so if a plaintiff failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
Several defendants quickly benefited from the TPPA’s added protections after the statute took effect, resulting in plaintiffs quickly dropping defamation claims or providing additional bases for dismissal in speech-based lawsuits that were ultimately dismissed on other grounds. Today, however, in a ruling by Wilson County General Sessions Judge Barry Tatum, the first-ever petition to dismiss a plaintiff’s claims under the Tennessee Public Participation Act has been granted.
The case arose out of a lawsuit filed by Dr. Kaveer Nandigam and his corporation, Nandigam Neurology, PLC, against Kelly Beavers regarding a negative Yelp review. After Ms. Beavers took her father to see Dr. Nandigam and had a terrible experience, she exercised her First Amendment right to leave a negative review on Yelp!, a popular consumer review website. Dr. Nandigam quickly threatened to sue her if she did not remove the review, and ultimately, he did sue her for defamation and false light invasion of privacy regarding it when she refused.
After Dr. Nandigam dismissed and then refiled his lawsuit against her, Ms. Beavers filed an immediate Petition to Dismiss the Plaintiffs’ claims under the TPPA. Earlier this morning, her petition was granted. Thus, pending a potential appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, all of the Plaintiffs’ claims against her have been dismissed with prejudice.
“This is a huge win for Kelly Beavers and the First Amendment, and it’s a huge loss for Dr. Nandigam and anyone else who would abuse the legal process to promote censorship of honest, critical consumer reviews,” said Daniel Horwitz, a speech defense lawyer who represented Ms. Beavers. Ms. Beavers’ claims for attorney’s fees and sanctions against both Dr. Nandigam and his attorney, Bennett Hirschhorn, remain pending. Daniel Horwitz is a free speech lawyer who represents clients across Tennessee. If you would like to purchase a consultation from him, you may do using the form below.