Trials & Litigation
Lawyer who claimed his paralegal likely tried to poison him may proceed with suit, Texas court rules
A paralegal accused in a lawsuit of falsely claiming that her lawyer boss was depressed to cover up his alleged poisoning can’t get his libel claims dismissed, a Texas appeals court has ruled.
The Texas Court of Appeals’ Third District in Austin, Texas, ruled for Arturo Guzman in a Feb. 10 opinion, report Law360 and Bloomberg Law.
Guzman’s lawsuit had alleged that the paralegal stole from his law practice, failed to respond to a client complaint and failed to file documents with ethics regulators, which led to his disbarment.
In an amended lawsuit against the paralegal, Guzman had alleged assault and battery, invasion of privacy, libel and slander, common law fraud and conversion, and breach of contract.
The paralegal, Ashley Szymonek, filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that she was protected by the Texas Citizens Participation Act. The law allows early dismissal of lawsuits against defendants speaking out on matters of public concern.
The trial judge refused to dismiss the suit. Szymonek appealed the judge’s refusal to dismiss claims of libel, slander and invasion of privacy.
The appeals court ruled that the law doesn’t protect Szymonek because her alleged lies didn’t implicate matters of public concern.
The appeals court described Guzman’s allegations.
Guzman alleged that Szymonek had told people that he was depressed to lay the groundwork for people to think that he died by suicide when she likely attempted to poison him with antifreeze in April 2020.
The daughter of Guzman’s former wife had gone to his office to check on him the morning of April 29, 2020, after being unable to contact him since the previous morning. The daughter found that all the locks had broken keys in them but was able to enter using a key code supplied by Szymonek.
The daughter was unable to waken Guzman, who had a bloated face and vomit coming out of his mouth. Doctors who treated Guzman at the hospital said he was most likely poisoned by ingesting a large amount of antifreeze. Guzman was in a coma for several days.
Family members had been in contact with Szymonek since the day before, when his responses to text messages seemed out-of-character for him. That night, he did not come home from work. Szymonek allegedly told Guzman’s relatives that he had talked to her about closing his law practice April 28, 2020, and he likely had to rest after an emotional day. She said he was “OK but probably just tired” when she left the office at about 7:30 p.m.
Guzman said he doesn’t remember much about April 28.
Guzman concluded that Szymonek was most likely responsible for the poisoning after he left the hospital and contacted her to help his ex-wife at his office.
Szymonek told Szymonek’s ex-wife that she didn’t know much about anything at the office, which led him to think that she was hiding something and was most likely responsible for his poisoning, his suit said.
A number of financial records were missing when the ex-wife’s daughter arrived at the office, Guzman alleged. Thousands of computer files had been deleted.
Guzman later learned that Szymonek had started a new job April 27, 2020, but she said she had to be off April 28 and 29 because of “prior commitments she had with her son,” he said in the suit. He also learned that his answer to the state bar’s disciplinary complaint had never been sent, and tax the documents that he provided Szymonek were never given to his accountant, who didn’t file Guzman’s taxes for 15 years.
Hays County, Texas, jail records indicate that Szymonek was arrested on a charge of theft of property greater than $300,000 on Feb. 11, the day after the appeals court ruled. Guzman confirmed to the ABA Journal that the person arrested was his former paralegal.
He admitted to being disappointed that no charge has been filed in connection with the poisoning. He says doctors told him that he almost died, and the lack of charges made him feel as if his life was “very cheap.”
Guzman says he was pleased by the appellate ruling.
“I was relieved. I think it vindicates me some. I was glad that the court of appeals was very clear,” he told the ABA Journal. “But I understand that this is just the beginning of a marathon.”
He expressed gratitude to lawyers Mark Cusack and Tonya Rolland, his former law clerk, for their work on his case.
“It’s been an ordeal and these people have been so kind to me,” he says.
Guzman is once again practicing law. He says he got his law license reinstated after supplying evidence to ethics regulators that is also part of his court case.
Szymonek did not immediately respond to a message left at her new law firm.