Aaron Morris

Here is How You Sue the News for Lying

Is that false news really false?

This is another article that callers have compelled me to write, so that I have a resource I can send them to that explains this important point of law.

We begin with Civil Code section 45, which defines libel:

Libel is a false and unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, effigy, or other fixed representation to the eye, which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation.

Thus, as a beginning point, a statement must be verifiably false to be defamatory.

But as the rest of the statute makes clear, falsity is not enough. If I publish an article falsely stating that you own a home in Beverly Hills, I have told a lie about you, but it would not be defamatory or actionable. That is the first point that many people struggle with. They grew up hearing “liar, liar, pants on fire,” and they assume that there must be some remedy against someone who tells a lie. (At a minimum, their pants should combust.)

Such is not the case. Lying about your home in Beverly Hills is not actionable, because that claim does not expose you to “hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation.” There is simply nothing wrong with owning a home in Beverly Hills.

Now as is always the case in analyzing statements to see if they are defamatory, context is everything. If you were known as the person who swore off all material possessions in order to live with and assist the homeless, and I publish a story falsely claiming you own a home in Beverly Hills, in that context the statement could be defamatory because it amounts to calling you a liar. But the first step in the analysis is to determine if the statement is false, and whether, if taken as true, the statement would subject you to hatred, contempt, etc.

Next comes the part that is at the heart of the article; the issue of what is false. Continue reading

California Supreme Court Puts Counsel for Yelp Through the Grinder in Hassell v. Bird

The tale of Hassell v. Bird.

I previously published a long article on the case of Hassell v. Bird, and I was invited to file a friend of the court brief in the California Supreme Court after it took up the case.

My original article provides much greater detail, but briefly for purposes of this article, Bird defamed a law firm – the Hassell Law Group – in a Yelp review. Hassell sued Bird, and the court found that the Yelp “review” was false and defamatory, and ordered Bird to take it down. But then comes a twist unique to this case. Knowing that Bird would be unlikely to comply with the order, the court also ordered Yelp to remove the review, even though Yelp had never been a party to the action.

It is not uncommon for court orders to include persons or entities who were not parties to the action, if some action by those third parties is necessary to effectuate the order. In a typical renter eviction action, for example, only the known tenant will be named in the action, but the eviction order will apply to anyone occupying the residence, in case the tenant allowed others to move in, subleased the property, etc.

Here, the trial court felt that it was reasonable to require Yelp to take down the review, even though it was not a party to the action. The review had been deemed to be defamatory, and it was not Yelp’s speech that was being attacked, so certainly Yelp would have no horse in the race. Indeed, presumably Yelp wants the reviews posted on its site to be as truthful as possible, so it should welcome an order that would result in the removal of a false review.

But Yelp’s business model depends on negative reviews, so it cried foul. Even after the Court of Appeal found that the judge’s order was entirely proper, Yelp went to the Supreme Court to fight for the right to publish false and defamatory reviews.

Today, I attended the oral argument held in that case, in front of the seven justices of the California Supreme Court.

It was pretty painful to watch, given the positions counsel for Yelp was forced to defend. Continue reading

WHAT TO DO WHEN SOMEONE HAS POSTED A FALSE YELP REVIEW ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS

Since free speech and internet defamation are our primary practice areas, and since it is a rather niche practice, we get many calls and emails from businesses that have been defamed by a false Yelp review. We also get may calls from those who have posted Yelp reviews and have been threatened with legal action, but that is an article for another day. For purposes of his article, I will discuss . . .

WHAT TO DO WHEN SOMEONE HAS POSTED A FALSE YELP REVIEW ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS

I wrote a similar article two years ago, but I want to update and expand on what I said previously, attempting to provide a more all encompassing review of your options when dealing with a false Yelp review.

This only applies to verifiably false and defamatory reviews.

I repeat this message over and over again on this blog, but so as to make this a standalone article, let me express again that if someone writes a critical but honest Yelp review about your business, I won’t help you to get rid of it. Nothing to see here. Move along. The marketplace of ideas is not promoted with defamatory speech, but neither is it promoted with censorship.

Note also that a review isn’t actionable just because it is false. If someone says you graduated from Arizona State University, but you really graduated from the University of Arizona, they have told a lie about you, but it isn’t defamatory because the lie doesn’t (necessarily) cast you in a bad light. Further, the statement must be verifiably false, and can’t be an opinion. If a patient writes that a doctor has a “terrible bedside manner”, that term is too imprecise to ever prove that it is false. It is a matter of opinion.

But a significant percentage of Yelp reviews are false and defamatory. We have rooted out businesses with employees who are tasked with the job of writing false reviews about competitors. Even down to the individual level, it is often the case that someone will have an honest beef with a business, but when it comes time to sit down and write the review, they feel compelled to embellish.

Continue reading

Being a member of a group won’t necessarily give you standing for a defamation claim

Another story illustrating the point I make here over and over, namely, that a statement must accuse you of something before it is defamatory.

Today a Federal Court in New York threw out defamation action against Rolling Stone Magazine. Rolling Stone had published an article about a coed named “Jackie” who contended that she had been raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in September 2012.

Three members of that fraternity — George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler — sued for defamation, claiming that the article implied that there was an initiation ritual that required new members to rape a coed. The plaintiffs were not named or identified in the article, but since they were members of the fraternity, they alleged that was enough to cause them humiliation and emotional distress.

When the police later investigated, they could find no support for Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone eventually retracted the story.

Claims of this sort are often too attenuated. In the first place, the judge concluded that “Viewed in the overall context of the article, the quotes cannot reasonably be construed to state or imply that the fraternity enforced a rape requirement as part of an initiation ritual or a pre-condition for membership.” But equally problematic, if the article does not mention any of the plaintiffs by name, then how can they claim that it accuses them of rape? Even it the article left no doubt that the fraternity has such a requirement, perhaps these individuals refused to participate.

The fraternity itself might have a good claim, and if the membership is small enough that a reasonable argument could be made that it damaged the reputation of these three members, then they could have a claim as well.

By way of example, I once received a call from a police officer, wanting to sue for defamation based on what a newspaper had said about the police officers in his community. He was fed up with all the cop bashing, and he never commits the acts that the article attributes to all police, so he wanted to sue.

Context is everything. If the article stated that “every police officer on the Springfield police department is guilty of using excess force,” then the argument could be made that it is directed at this individual officer. But if the article stated that “more police officers on the Springfield police department are guilty of using excess force than any other department,” then it can’t reasonably be argued that the statement identifies any particular officers. Simply stated, your membership in a group won’t be sufficient basis to support a defamation claim, unless the publication specifically states or implies that you committed the acts. Absent extraordinary circumstances, being a member of a group won’t give you standing for a defamation claim.

Ironically and tragically, the frat members probably caused far more damage to themselves than the Rolling Stone article ever would have. The attorney for these fraternity members should have explained what would result from this action. Had the members done nothing, then at worst, in the future when they mentioned that they were former members of this fraternity, they might on very rare occasions have been met with the question, “Isn’t that the frat that has a rape ritual?” They could have answered, “Rolling Stone published a crazy story about that, but it was false, and the magazine later apologized.” Now, they have forever attached their names to this story, and future prospective employers who do an internet search for their names will be presented with this rape story.

[UPDATE – June 13, 2017]  Rolling Stone agreed to settle an action brought by the fraternity for $1.65 million. The frat has originally demanded $25 million, but settled for this lesser amount, giving “a significant portion” of the proceeds to charities related to fighting sexual assault.

[UPDATE – September 19, 2017]  The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of the action brought by fraternity members George Elias IV, Ross Fowler, and Stephen Hadford, finding that, given the small membership of the fraternity, they may be able to successfully show that the Rolling Stone article individually damaged their reputations.

Another Example of How Facebook Can Kill Your Lawsuit

banana peel

In today’s cautionary tale, a woman, Nancy Nicolauo, was bitten by a tick, and later began suffering symptoms such as numbness, fatigue and lower back pain. Things got worse, and she eventually had problems walking and was confined to a wheelchair.

Given the tick bite, Lyme disease was suspected, but the results came back as negative. She went to a passel of doctors, and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Nine years after the symptoms started, she got tested again for Lyme disease, and this time the results came back positive. Nicolaou decided to sue for medical malpractice, claiming her medical issue had been improperly diagnosed, causing her to suffer for all those years.

Now comes the key issue. Nicolaou received the results from the Lyme discease test in 2010, and filed her suit in 2012. She claimed she was within the two year statute of limitations (SOL) for a medical malpractice claim because she did not “discover” the misdiagnosis until she received the test results in 2010. But when a claim is based on discovery, the SOL runs from the date that the plaintiff “knew or should have known” of the negligence.

However, counsel for defendants had done a little snooping into Nicolaou’s Facebook postings. As argued by defense counsel, “As underscored by the trial court, on Feb. 14, 2010, Mrs. Nicolaou posted, ‘I had been telling everyone for years i thought it was lyme…,’ to which one of her Facebook friends responded, ‘[Y]ou DID say you had Lyme so many times!'”

Thus, as evidenced by her own Facebook postings, Nicolaou had suspected “for years” that she was suffering from Lyme disease. Therefore, she “knew or SHOULD HAVE KNOWN” that the doctors had misdiagnosed her condition years earlier. The court did not agree that the clock did not start ticking on the SOL until she had actual confirmation from the lab test. She was under a reasonable duty to investigate her suspicions.

The trial court dismissed her claims on a motion for summary judgment, and that decision was upheld by the appellate court.

Posting on Facebook is a little like playing poker with all your cards face up on the table. It can be done, but the other side knows exactly what you have.

Facebook Postings Can Kill Your Personal Injury Case

Private investigator stakeout photo documentation

Yet another cautionary tale about how the things you post on Facebook can come back to haunt you.

On Friday I received a call from a prospective client, wanting to sue her employer. The caller had filed a workers compensation claim, and she was convinced that her employer was having her followed. I explained to her that, assuming she is not just imagining that she is being followed, such conduct is not unusual. Many a workers compensation claim, personal injury claim, and disability claim has been defeated by videos showing the plaintiff engaging in activities he or she claimed were prevented by their injuries.

The caller was shocked by such an invasion of privacy, and asked if it is legal. In response to that question, allow me to introduce the case of Xiong v. Knight Trans, out of the 10th Circuit.

A woman by the name of Pahoua Xiong suffered a back injury when her vehicle collided with a Knight Transportation truck. Xiong successfully sued for her injuries, with a jury finding that she was 40% liable for the injury, and Knight was liable for the remaining 60%. She was awarded $499,200.

Knight then moved for a new trial, on two grounds. First, Knight argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the damages awarded, and second because there was new evidence, found after the trial, proving that Xiong had committed a fraud on the court.

What was this new evidence? Well, given the opening paragraph of this article, you probably figured out that it was something Xiong posted on Facebook. Indeed, after the trial, a member of Knight’s legal team happened across pictures of Xiong on Facebook, showing her partying with friends and family, seemingly pain free, despite her claims that she was in such severe pain that she was taking five or six Percocet every day.

Based on the photos, Knight conducted more discovery on social media, and then hired a private investigator to follow Xiong and record her as she went about her days.

In Federal court, to successfully argue for a new trial based on the post-trial discovery of evidence, the party must show a number of factors, the most important for this discussion being that the party was diligent prior to trial in seeking out the evidence. So Knight showed the evidence obtained on Facebook and what the private investigator uncovered, but the trial court denied the motion for new trial, holding that the evidence could have been discovered earlier with more diligence.

Knight appealed, but the 10th Circuit came to the same conclusion. That appellate court concluded that the same steps that were taken after the trial, that revealed the evidence, could have been taken before the trial. Although Knight apparently did search social media prior to the trial, its efforts failed to turn up the photos of Xiong due to a misspelling of her name. As to what the private investigator uncovered, he could have been hired just as easily prior to the trial.

So, in answer to the caller’s question about whether it is legal to have someone followed in the hope of refuting their injury claims, according to the 10th Circuit, doing so is necessary part of the investigation in order to show due diligence.

You CAN Remove False, Defamatory Reviews from Yelp

Yelp love hateA false Yelp review can be devastating to a business. There are a number of factors that vary the impact of a false review, including of course the nature of the false review, and the number of honest, positive reviews to offset it. But a recent study determined that a single false Yelp review can cut a business’s gross income by 20%. I personally have seen situations involving businesses with few reviews are put out of business by false reviews.

Unfortunately, Yelp thrives on negative reviews. A big part of Yelp’s income comes from businesses that pay to subscribe to Yelp’s business services. Most of the incentive for wanting to pay Yelp comes from a desire to set forward a better image on Yelp, and for that Yelp needs negative reviews. A business with nothing but positive Yelp reviews is less incentivized to pay Yelp.

It is NOT true that paying Yelp will allow removal of negative reviews, or that failing to pay Yelp results in removal of all positive reviews, at least not directly. I don’t believe that there is a secret manual within Yelp, instructing its salespeople to retaliate against businesses that refuse to sign up for Yelp’s services, but I have received too many calls from potential clients, complaining that is just what happened, to believe that it is mere coincidence.

The story is always the same. The business was going along, singing a song, with nothing but positive Yelp reviews. Then, out of the blue, two or more negative reviews appear, usually blatantly fake in nature, because the “reviewers” complain about some product or service the business does not even offer. In one instance, the caller to our office received two fake reviews in two days, both using names of famous athletes.

Yelp undoubtedly has a mechanism that notifies its salespeople when a business has received negative reviews, because shortly after these fake reviews appear, the business receives a call from Yelp’s sales department, noting the negative reviews, and explaining that while paying $500 per month to Yelp will not enable the business to remove these negative reviews, it will give the business more control over its “Yelp presence”, including the elimination of ads from competing businesses on that business’s home page.

If the business respectfully declines, it is then that the business’s positive reviews are filtered, or so has been reported to us over and over and over.

Yelp for a priceMy theory, giving Yelp the benefit of the doubt, is not that Yelp is retaliating, but that this sales process brings a human being into the equation, instead of just Yelp’s algorithm. Under Yelp’s “rules”, reviews are supposed to be entirely organic, and not the result of improper encouragement from the business. Perhaps in looking at all those positive reviews, said human being notices that many were posted in the same week, possibly indicating that there was some incentive provided that week for Yelp reviews. Or perhaps it is noticed that many of the reviews refer to the owners by name. Would so many people eating at a restaurant really know the owners’ names? Perhaps these raise red flags, and legitimate or not, it is decided that these positive reviews should be filtered.

It is because of this sequence of events that so many people believe that Yelp is somehow responsible for the negative reviews, and that the removal of positive reviews is done to punish business that don’t subscribe.

But whatever the reality may be, the undeniable fact is that fake reviews are posted on Yelp. We have repeatedly uncovered “fake review mills”, ranging from disgruntled former employees to full time staff members, hired to post negative reviews about competitors.

Only false reviews need apply.

Continue reading

Proof Positive that You Need a Good Defamation / Anti-SLAPP Attorney


Litigation is never a 100% certainty, as evidenced by the two cases that follow. But an attorney who really knows his or her stuff can certainly mean the difference between victory or defeat. If you are going to enter the murky waters of a defamation action, be sure you have a good defamation attorney.

Our first example is the case of Francis X. Cheney, II v. Daily News L.P. (Cheney).  In Cheney, The New York Daily News reported on a sex scandal at the fire department, and the article included two photographs. The first was a generic stock photo showing firefighters at the scene of a fire, but inexplicably the newspaper chose to also use a photo of firefighter Francis Cheney II, taken during a formal 9/11 ceremony. The newspaper’s intent was simply to use Cheney as a representation of a firefighter, but a casual reader could easily draw the conclusion that he was one of the firefighters involved in the sex scandal.

Cheney sued the newspaper, claiming that the photo had harmed his reputation by implying that he was one of the firefighters involved in the sex scandal. But a judge in federal court dismissed the action, finding that since the article never mentioned Cheney by name, it was too much of a stretch to assume that readers would think the photo was there because he was a participant.

Cheney appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with the conclusion of the trial court, and affirmed the dismissal of Cheney’s case. [But see the update at the end of this article!]

So, the rule of law appears to be that if a newspaper uses a stock photo of you in conjunction with a scandalous story, you cannot successfully sue for defamation unless you are referenced by name in the article.

Now we turn to the case of Leah Manzari v. Associated News Ltd. (Manzari).

In this case, an online newspaper called the Daily Mail Online published an article about the adult film industry, entitled, “PORN INDUSTRY SHUTS DOWN WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT AFTER ‘FEMALE PERFORMER’ TESTS POSITIVE FOR HIV.” With the article, the Daily Mail published a stock photo of Leah Manzari, who is professionally known as Danni Ashe. Manzari sued for defamation, stating that the article falsely implied that she tested positive for HIV.

The article never used Manzari’s real name or film name. So, under the reasoning of the firefighter case, Manzari’s action has to be dismissed because it is too much of a stretch to think that readers will assume the article is referring to her, just because of the photo. Right? Continue reading

How to Remove False and Defamatory Glassdoor Reviews

Glassdoor
Although founded almost a decade ago, Glassdoor’s defamation problems seem to be a more recent phenomenon. We did not begin receiving calls about defamatory Glassdoor reviews until about two years ago.

In case you are unfamiliar with the site, Glassdoor seeks to be an online community regarding companies and employment. On the site you can find job listings, salary stats, and employee reviews regarding the companies at which they work or worked.

But like all review sites, there are those who use Glassdoor as a means to post false reviews about competitors, or for revenge purposes by falsely trashing a company that terminated the “reviewing” employee.

Again, I always feel compelled to explain the nature of the reviews of which I speak. I will fight to the death for the right of an employee to post an honest review about the terrible experience he had with an employer. But when I talk about false reviews, I am speaking of reviews where a competitor purports to be an employee and makes false statements about the company, or where an actual employee publishes verifiable lies about the company, as opposed to mere opinions. For example, in a recent Glassdoor case we handled, the employee stated in his review that the company is always late in issuing paychecks to the employees. The company had never been late with payroll.

Removing false Glassdoor reviews.

To its credit, Glassdoor is one of the more honorable review sites. Before posting a review, the user must attest that they were or are an employee of the business in question, and their email address is validated. (Email validation does little to stop someone bent on posting defamatory posts, because they can easily create an email account, but at least it provides one more hoop for the defamer to jump through.)

Like any review site, Glassdoor is protected by the Communications Decency Act (CDA) from any defamation claim for reviews posted by others, but Glassdoor does have a review process, and will remove reviews that it finds do not comply with its terms of use. In working with Glassdoor’s legal counsel, I have found a willingness to review and remove posts without legal action, if a sufficient showing of defamatory content can be made. With the recent Court of Appeal opinion holding that review sites can be ordered to take down defamatory posts, and that such orders do not run afoul of the CDA, Morris & Stone can now compel Glassdoor to remove defamatory posts, but Glassdoor already had a policy of respecting court decisions which found that posted content was defamatory. This is a policy all review sites should follow, and kudos to Glassdoor for doing so voluntarily.

As with most review sites, if you are an employer and find yourself burdened with a false review on Glassdoor, your first line of attack should be to ethically encourage positive reviews. The internet community understands for the most part that no matter how wonderful a company/employer, there will be some background noise created by trolls. But if you are faced with truly harmful fake reviews, and need them removed from Glassdoor, give Morris & Stone a call.

Morris & Stone Case Creates Important Internet Defamation Authority

Super hero with computer circuit

Internet Defamation Law Clarified

Morris & Stone is proud to announce that righteous Internet defamation cases will now be easier to prove, due to a Court of Appeal opinion resulting from one of our cases.

I was brought in as co-counsel to first chair a trial in Santa Cruz, representing an attorney we will refer to as “Esquire”. In addition to her legal practice, Esquire had a business on the side, which was based in some warehouse space. A few years into Esquire’s lease, the warehouse was purchased by someone we will call “Painter”, making Painter Esquire’s landlord.

The problem was, Painter wanted the entire warehouse for his own use, so he made a buy-out offer to Esquire. But Esquire liked the space, and turned down the offer.

Then began what Esquire saw as a harassment campaign, designed to get her to move out. The harassment included fights over parking and jack hammering during business hours. Ultimately, Esquire was forced to go to court to get an injunction against Painter to stop some of the behavior.

The same day the injunction was issued, Esquire received her first negative Yelp review, which was followed by two more. It was clear the reviews were false, because they accused Esquire of poorly performing services that her company did not even offer. By subpoening records from Yelp and then the Internet Service providers, Esquire confirmed that one of the reviews had been posted from Painter’s business account, and two had been posted from his home account.

Judge Ariadne Symons

Esquire sued Painter for breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment as to her lease, and for defamation for the fraudulent Yelp reviews. Painter cross-complained for breach of lease. The trial was assigned to Judge Ariadne Symons, who by her own admission was probably not the best choice for this case, confessing that she knew nothing about the internet and computers.

At commencement of trial, the defense took one look at our trial brief, and immediately dismissed the cross-complaint, leaving for trial only our complaint against Painter. Unfortunately, Judge Symons’ fundamental misunderstanding of the rules of evidence, both as to what is necessary to admit documents posted on the internet, and as to indirect evidence and inferences, led to the exclusion of all of our defamation evidence. Judge Symons simply did not understand some basic evidentiary principles, dealing with the authentication of web postings and indirect evidence.

How to Authenticate Yelp Reviews

For example, to authenticate a review posted on Yelp, all that is required is a witness (usually the client) who can testify that the copy of the review being offered as evidence is an accurate depiction of what the witness saw when he or she visited the Yelp site. This does not mean that you can introduce anything you find on the Internet as proof of whatever it says, it means only that pursuant to Evidence Code section 1552, a witness can testify that “this is the review I saw posted on Yelp,” and that review becomes admissible as to its existence. Although we provided very clear authority, Judge Symons erroneously ruled that a representative of Yelp must be present to authenticate the existence of the reviews.

The Law of Indirect Evidence

Then there was the issue of the indirect evidence. We had the defendant dead to rights as the party who had posted the fraudulent reviews, because the IP information showed that the reviews had been posted from defendant’s home and office internet accounts. In an internet defamation case, unless the defendant confesses to posting the reviews, you can never prove unequivocally that the defendant’s fingers typed the reviews, but the jury is permitted to make the reasonable inference that defendant posted the reviews if they were posted from his account (on the very day that plaintiff has successfully sued defendant in court on another matter). But despite all the authority we provided to the contrary, Judge Symons erroneously held that indirect evidence was not admissible. An appeal was necessary to reverse all of the evidentiary errors by Judge Symons.

As anticipated, the Court of Appeal for the Sixth District found in favor of Esquire on the evidentiary rulings, and reversed the trial court. It took Judge Symons to task, referring to her conclusions as “perplexing”. More important for the legal community at large, the Court of Appeal used the opportunity to provide a very detailed explanation to all trial courts as to the admissibility of information posted on the internet, as well as the proper determination of the admissibility of indirect evidence.

In a perfect world, Judge Symons would have followed the authority we provided, and our case would have proceeded directly to verdict. But we take solace in the fact that even though the case was delayed and will now have to go back for a new trial (in front of a different judge), that detour served to create a precedential blueprint for all judges and attorneys to follow in future internet defamation cases.

Judge Symons has been moved to Family Court.

For a detailed discussion of this important opinion, click on the play button beneath the image, for the California SLAPP Law Podcast.

Aaron Morris

Morris & Stone, LLP

Tustin Financial Plaza
17852 17th St., Suite 201
Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

Email Aaron Morris

View Aaron Morris, Trial Attorney and Partner at Morris & Stone, with emphasis on Free Speech and Defamation Law.

Section 6158.3 Notice

NOTICE PURSUANT TO BUSINESS & PROFESSIONS CODE SECTION 6158.3: The outcome of any case will depend on the facts specific to that case. Nothing contained in any portion of this web site should be taken as a representation of how your particular case would be concluded, or even that a case with similar facts will have a similar result. The result of any case discussed herein was dependent on the facts of that case, and the results will differ if based on different facts.