In January 2018, Netflix began airing a show entitled “Dirty Money,” a docu-series aimed to shed light on true stories of scandal and corruption. On March 11, 2020, an episode of the series called “Guardians, Inc.” portrayed millionaire Charles Thrash as the victim of an abusive guardianship masterminded by his niece, Tonya Barina. The episode presents Barina as having taken undue advantage of her uncle by wrongfully selling his assets and using his estate for personal gain. After the episode aired, Barina received a great deal of hate mail from the episode’s audience. In March 2021, Barina filed a lawsuit against Netflix for defamation.
Soon thereafter, Netflix filed a motion to dismiss the case. In August 2021, a Judge in Bexar County, Texas granted Netflix’s motion. However, Barina appealed, and on August 31, 2022, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the case, stating that there was no actual evidence of Barina committing any wrongdoing; therefore, the episode could be considered “defamatory.”
The Fourth Circuit noted that the depictions of Barina inaccurately represented the court proceedings in connection with Thrash’s guardianship. The actual facts were that Barina stepped in as the guardian of her uncle’s estate in 2017 after his girlfriend at the time, Laura Martinez, and her daughter, Brittany Martinez, were accused of appropriating his assets. Apparently, Laura Martinez tricked Thrash into marrying her and adopting her children. But, the episode in question represented Laura Martinez as Thrash’s common-law wife and allowed Martinez, her daughter, and their attorney Phillip Ross to speak on behalf of Thrash without giving Barina the opportunity to tell her side of the story.
The Fourth Circuit found that, during the creation of the offending episode, Netflix had access to the 2019 court order, which imposed monetary sanctions on Laura and Brittany Martinez. In other words, it was Laura and Brittany Martinez that had engaged in the wrongful conduct, while Netflix argued that there was evidence that Barina had allegedly offered to step down as guardian if she received a certain sum of money, plus she failed to pay Thrash’s bills, and allegedly closed down his business, without his permission. The Fourth Circuit pointed out that the episode failed to mention that Barina had a legal right to use the estate funds to pay for legal expenses and attorney fees. There was no other evidence that showed Barina doing anything wrong.
In short, the court concluded that the episode was misleading and did not convey all of the truthful backgrounds regarding Thrash’s guardianship. As a result, the Fourth Circuit Justices reversed the ruling in Netflix’s favor and remanded the case to the District Court in Bexar County, Texas.
Justices Patricia O. Alvarez, Irene Rios, and Beth Watkins sat on the panel for the Fourth Court of Appeals.
The appellees are represented by Laura Lee Prather and Catherine Lewis Robb of Haynes and Boone LLP and Rachel F. Strom and Katherine M. Bolger of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.
Barina is represented by Carl J. Kolb of Carl J. Kolb PC and Glenn Deadman of Glenn Deadman PC.
The case is Netflix Inc. et al. v. Tonya Barina, case number 04-21-00327, in the Texas Court of Appeals for the Fourth District.
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