Defamation

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.

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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.

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.

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Bill Cosby Sues Beverly Johnson for Defamation

“Bill Cosby filed a lawsuit Monday against supermodel Beverly Johnson, alleging she lied when she said the comedian drugged and tried to rape her at his New York home in the mid-1980s.

Cosby’s lawsuit says Johnson joined other women making accusations against him to revive her waning career and to help sell copies of her memoir.

The lawsuit alleges defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, saying Cosby and Johnson never spent any time alone in his house, he never drugged her and ‘her story is a lie.'”

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.wmur.com

 

In an earlier discussion of Bill Cosby, I mentioned the problem of coming out and denying claims made by an accuser.

In the case of Bill Cosby, several women have come forward telling similar tales. Specifically, they allege that Cosby would drug and then rape them. Even though the statute of limitations on those alleged offenses may long have passed, Cosby affords those women with a potential cause of action if he comes out and denies the claims. By denying the claims, he is in essence calling them liars, which triggers a potential defamation action.

This action is the flip side of that coin. Cosby, of course, has the ability to sue for defamation, claiming that the accusations are false and defamatory. But this strategy comes at a cost. This lawsuit is against Beverly Johnson, but other women are making the same claim. Are we then to assume that the claims by the other women are not defamatory?

As the saying goes, “in for a dime, in for a dollar.” Cosby has now created a scenario whereby he must sue all of his accusers, lest he be viewed as being guilty of the claims by those he doesn’t sue.

Court tosses lawyer’s libel suit over ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’

TORONTO – Ontario’s top court has tossed a defamation action by a lawyer over a book in which he is cited as saying he identified with the Mexican bandit from the movie “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

In a written ruling Monday, the Court of Appeal sided with a lower court judge, who rejected the action from David Midanik against Betsy Powell in October last year, and ordered him to pay more than $100,000 in legal costs.

“In our view, this defamation action was ill-conceived,” the Appeal Court said.

Source: metronews.ca

Two lessons from this Canadian case. First, consider whether your colorful writing style is going to get you into trouble, and second that context is everything.

In this case, a lawyer penned a book about some of his legal experiences. He wrote about a case he prosecuted against a Toronto street gang, and stated that one of the defense attorneys was like Tuco Ramirez, a character from the film “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” He paraphrased a line from the character, “I like big men because they fall hard.”

The defense lawyer in question took offense at this comment, and sued for defamation. He argued that by equating him with Tuco Ramirez, the author implied that he was a murderer, rapist, dishonest and sleazy.

The case was doomed to failure, both legally and conceptually.

When one quotes from a fictional character, that does not mean or even imply that the quote is meant to pull in all the traits of the character in question. If I’m doing a hockey story, and I show a player making a slap shot, with the caption, “Say hello to my little friend,” am I implying that the hockey player is a drug lord?

The trial court and Court of Appeal agreed with my interpretation, and dismissed the case. Under Canadian law, the loser pays, so this ill-conceived case (the court’s words) cost the thin-skinned attorney about 100,000 Canadian dollars, eh.

Firefighter pictured in sex scandal article loses libel claims against Daily News, appeals | Pennsylvania Record

Per the order of a federal judge, the libel lawsuit brought by a Philadelphia firefighter against the New York Daily News earlier this year has been dismissed, though court records indicate he has appealed that verdict.

Source: news.google.com

This was an interesting case that really could have gone either way, and well may be reversed on appeal.

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 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.

I would have anticipated that the defamation claim he filed would fail, but he also filed a claim for false light invasion of privacy, and that claim certainly had some merit.

Here is the jury instruction for false light (in California):

1802. False Light

[Name of plaintiff] claims that [name of defendant] violated [his/her] right to privacy. To establish this claim, [name of plaintiff] must prove all of the following:

1. That [name of defendant] publicized information or material that showed [name of plaintiff] in a false light;

2. That the false light created by the publication would be highly offensive to a reasonable person in [name of plaintiff]’s position;

3. [That there is clear and convincing evidence that [name of defendant] knew the publication would create a false impression about [name of plaintiff] or acted with reckless disregard for the truth;]

[or]

[That [name of defendant] was negligent in determining the truth of the information or whether a false impression would be created by its publication;]

4. [That [name of plaintiff] was harmed; and]

[or]

[That [name of plaintiff] sustained harm to [his/her] property, business, profession, or occupation [including money spent as a result of the statement(s)]; and]

5. That [name of defendant]’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing [name of plaintiff]’s harm.

[In deciding whether [name of defendant] publicized the information or material, you should determine whether it was made public either by communicating it to the public at large or to so many people that the information or material was substantially certain to become public knowledge.]

Defamation is an intentional tort, but false light can be established with a showing of negligence. A jury could certainly find that it is negligent to post a picture of a random firefighter in an article about a sex scandal, and that an average reader might assume that the firefighter must in some way be involved with the scandal.

But the judge in Pennsylvania disagreed, and threw out all of Cheney’s claims. The judge found that the photo provided sufficient context such that a reader would know that no link between the photo of Cheney and the sex scandal was intended.

This is an important factor in any defamation (or false light) claim. The fact that a statement or photo can be interpreted in a defamatory sense is not enough. The statement must be given a reasonable interpretation.

Gay Lawyer Takes Stand in Defamation Suit

The gay attorney suing Anapol Schwartz for defamation took the stand Tuesday to outline his departure from the firm and his decision to accept a job at Raynes McCarty…

Source: www.thelegalintelligencer.com

Quite the case. The law firm associate, Jeffrey Downs, was planning to make a lateral move from Anapol Schwartz to Raynes McCarty, but allegedly his former firm informed the new firm that Downs was preparing to sue the former firm for discrimination. Raynes McCarty then revoked its offer.

Ironically, Downs is now suing Raynes McCarty for discrimination and defamation. Presumably, if the allegations are true, the firm revoked the offer because it feared that Downs was litigious and wanted to avoid being sued, but in the process bought itself a lawsuit in any event.

Equally ironic, before leaving Downs had sent an email to his firm, seeking eight months of severance pay. That is the email that the firm is pointing to to claim that Downs was threatening litigation before his departure, which would make the warning to the new firm absolutely true.

Former 49er Ray McDonald sues rape accuser for defamation

“Former San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald has gone on the offensive, filing a lawsuit Monday against the woman who accused him of sexual assault in December, as a way to try to clear his name in hopes of restarting his career.”

Source: www.usatoday.com

This will be an interesting case to follow.

McDonald was accused of rape after spending the night with a woman me met at a San Jose bar. She claimed that while partying with McDonald at his home, she bumped her head during a hot tubbing incident, and did not recall anything that followed until she woke up naked in his bed the following morning. She spent the day with him, but sought medical treatment the next day. McDonald never denied that he had sex with the woman, but said it was consenual.

For reasons I have explained here before, reports to the police are privileged and will not support a defamation action. If that is the basis for the claim, this case will soon be gone on an anti-SLAPP motion. But if the woman alleged rape outside of that context, then McDonald’s case will survive.

[MAY 23, 2016 UPDATE:] The attorney for the woman brought an anti-SLAPP motion, based on the fact that the rape was reported only to the police. As I predicted, since McDonald was unable to identify anyone other than the police who received the allegedly defamatory claim, the anti-SLAPP motion was granted and McDonald’s case was dismissed.

Reports to the police are privileged, and can never form the basis of a defamation claim. This case makes clear why that MUST be the rule.

For sake of argument, let’s say McDonald did rape the woman. (Her story seems a little dubious, but let’s assume it was true for sake of this discussion.)

McDonald, who probably has some money from his NFL days, wants to silence this woman and hopefully get her to drop the charges. So he sues her for defamation, knowing that she will have to spend tens of thousands of dollars fighting against that legal action. She may very well get worn down by the time and expense of the legal action, and agree to drop her criminal charges in exchange for McDonald dropping his civil action.

We can never permit criminal defendants to use civil proceedings as a means to intimidate witnesses, and that is why reports to the police are privileged.

That does not leave McDonald without a remedy if the claims were false. If he is found not guilty in the criminal trial, he can then sue his accuser for malicious prosecution, if he can show that the claim was made with malice. Malice can be shown by proving that the woman could not have believed what she claimed.

Defamation in False Online Review

In a case brought by a US law firm in respect of a defamatory allegation on the firm’s Google Maps profile, it was held that the posting of a false online review by an English poster amounted to defamation deserving of substantial damages. In The Bussey Law Firm PC & Anor v. Page [2015] EWHC 563 (QB), the offending post read as follows:

 

‘Scumbag Tim Bussey, pays for false reviews, loses 80% of his cases.

Not a happy camper’

 

Source: www.scl.org

bowling ball knocking down false pins
A case out of England that is interesting for a couple of reasons.

When I mention that I represent clients who are suing for false online reviews, I sometimes get a shocked look. People feel that reviews should be off limits, since they are matter of opinion.

In a perfect world that would be entirely true, but as this case illustrates, a review is not a matter of opinion if it is a complete fabrication by someone who has never done business with the company. Here, the defendant charges $5 to write fake reviews. The reviews can be good or bad, depending on what the purchaser wants. Keep that in mind whenever you are reading on-line reviews.

The damages awarded are also interesting. No doubt, the plaintiff could not show any direct loss of business because of this one bad review, but the court nonetheless awarded the maximum amount permitted under the law. One’s reputation has value, and the court felt a stiff damage award was appropriate for damaging the reputation.

Fake Social Media Account by Police Allowed Without Warrant

Keep your friends close, and your Instagram friends even closer.   One of your online friends might be the police and a search warrant fis not needed to befriend you on social media. A US District …

Source: www.thenationaltriallawyers.org

To quote Bugs Bunny, “What a maroon!”

When a string of burglaries occurred, the police had a pretty good idea who it might me. They found the suspect’s Instagram account, and asked (under an undercover account) to become “friends”. The suspect agreed.

The suspect then proceeded to send out pictures of all the stolen property to his “friends”, which now included the police. Busted.

The suspect sought to exclude the evidence, claiming the police needed a search warrant, but the court disagreed.

“Where Facebook privacy settings allow viewership of postings by “friends,” the Government may access them through a cooperating witness who is a “friend” without violating the Fourth Amendment” as in the case of U.S. v. Meregildo (883 F. Supp. 2d 523, 525 (S.D.N.Y. 2012)) where a Facebook “friend” was a cooperating witness and allowed law enforcement to access Meregildo’s posts regarding his violent acts and gang activity.

Aaron Morris

Morris & Stone, LLP

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Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

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

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