Internet Defamation

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.

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.

Yelp Ordered to Remove Defamatory Posts

False Yelp Review

As I have stated here many times, although wrongdoers have been able to use it as a shield, the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) is an essential statute if we want to live in a country where one can freely offer their opinions about products and businesses.

But I have also argued for a simple fix to the abuses of the CDA. If someone posts a defamatory review on Yelp, the CDA prevents any legal action against Yelp; only the person who posted the comment is liable for the defamatory comments. Fair enough. If Yelp could be made to research every review the subject of that review claims is defamatory, it could not exist, and the process of finding a good sushi restaurant would be made far more difficult.

But would it be so burdensome to require Yelp to take down a review, AFTER a court has determined that review to be false and defamatory? It is a long and arduous journey to take a case to trial and prove that a review is defamatory. There would be very few judgments coming out the other side of that process, and hence very few posts Yelp would need to take down. Indeed, Yelp should embrace such an approach, because it claims to want only legitimate reviews. If after presentation of evidence, a court has determined that a review posted on Yelp is false, Yelp should be thrilled that a false review was rooted out and jump to remove it.

The CDA is a necessary evil, but it makes no conceptual sense that after the person who posted the comment has been found to be liable for defamation, that the post can remain, still damaging the reputation of the plaintiff. At least in the case of Yelp, the court can order the defendant to remove the post, and the defendant has the ability to do so, but what about sites like Rip Off Report, where the site prevents the defendant from removing his own post? I have long called for a mechanism to force sites to remove defamatory posts after a court has found them to be so.

Finally, a Court in San Francisco apparently heard my plea, and entered a judgment ordering Yelp to take down a post. The conventional wisdom has always been (1) you can’t get a court to order an injunction against Yelp since it is not a party to the action, and (2) obtaining such an order would violate the CDA, because is somehow amounts to finding liability against Yelp.

But I have long railed against that conventional wisdom. Continue reading

How to Stop Defamation When You Can’t Afford an Attorney

Bankruptcy - Business Person holding an empty wallet

Is there a way to stop Internet defamation when you have limited funds to hire an attorney?

Here’s a call I get a few times a week. Someone somewhere has managed to upset someone else, usually over a miscommunication. Alternatively, it will be an ex-boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse that feels they were done wrong. The offended party responds to the perceived offense by going onto various social networking sites and posting false, defamatory statements; Facebook is a popular choice for the vitriol. The victim of these accusations wants my assistance in getting the statements taken down.

I can do that, but at a cost. And while I sometimes take a case on a contingency basis (receiving a percentage of the amount recovered), most of the time such an arrangement is not workable since the primary goal of the action is to remove the defamatory materials, not for damages. An attorney cannot take a case on a contingency basis if there are no damages or if the defendant has no ability to pay. Indeed, in many instances an attorney should not take a defamation case on a contingency basis since that will then make the case about money instead of being about solutions.

Is there a solution for those who can’t afford representation? Continue reading

California Prohibits “You Can’t Review Me” Contracts

no criticism contractsFrom my recollection, doctors were the first to try this nonsense. They would slip in a provision in all the intake paperwork, stating that the patient agrees not to post any negative reviews about the doctor, with a $500 penalty if the patient violates the clause.

These contract clauses gained more and more popularity. I came across one in the repair estimate I received from my Ford dealership.

Occasionally, I would receive a call from a doctor or some other business, asking me to write a letter to a customer, demanding that they take down a review based on such a contract clause. I was happy to demand removal if the posting was defamatory, but I would not agree to use the clause as a basis, because I found them so offensive.

Apparently the California Legislature found them offensive as well, and created Civil Code section 1670.8. This section makes it ILLEGAL to include one of these “you can’t review me” provisions in any contract. If a business includes such a provision in a contract, it can be hit with a penalty of up to $2,500, and $5,000 for each subsequent violation, even if it never seeks to enforce the provision.

If you encounter a contract with “you can’t review me” language, then contact me immediately. I’d love to take these to court.

Here is section 1670.8 in its entirety:

1670.8. (a) (1) A contract or proposed contract for the sale or lease of consumer goods or services may not include a provision waiving the consumer’s right to make any statement regarding the seller or lessor or its employees or agents, or concerning the goods or services.

(2) It shall be unlawful to threaten or to seek to enforce a provision made unlawful under this section, or to otherwise penalize a consumer for making any statement protected under this section.

(b) Any waiver of the provisions of this section is contrary to public policy, and is void and unenforceable.

(c) Any person who violates this section shall be subject to a civil penalty not to exceed two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500) for the first violation, and five thousand dollars ($5,000) for the second and for each subsequent violation, to be assessed and collected in a civil action brought by the consumer, by the Attorney General, or by the district attorney or city attorney of the county or city in which the violation occurred. When collected, the civil penalty shall be payable, as appropriate, to the consumer or to the general fund of whichever governmental entity brought the action to assess the civil penalty.

(d) In addition, for a willful, intentional, or reckless violation of this section, a consumer or public prosecutor may recover a civil penalty not to exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

(e) The penalty provided by this section is not an exclusive remedy, and does not affect any other relief or remedy provided by law. This section shall not be construed to prohibit or limit a person or business that hosts online consumer reviews or comments from removing a statement that is otherwise lawful to remove.

James Woods Demands Court Order To ID Twitter User Who Called Him A “Cocaine Addict”

Actor James Woods says a Twitter user who called him a “cocaine addict” has no right to demand anonymity.

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

The James Woods case presents a good illustration of the legal process and certain constitutional rights.

Someone on Twitter, using the pseudonym “Abe List” or AL for short, got into it with Woods, and let fly with a series of put-downs, referring to Woods as a Joke, clown-boy and scum. Counsel for Woods understood defamation law well enough to know that those claims are not offered as verifiable facts, and therefore cannot be defamatory.

But AL also called Woods a “cocaine addict”, and that is where his counsel drew the line. They filed what is called a DOE action, suing an unknown defendant for defamation. (Here is the actual complaint.) Once a DOE action is filed, the plaintiff can then subpoena the records (here, from Twitter) to determine the identity of the anonymous poster.

Here’s where things get interesting.

What many do not realize is that someone posting comments on the Internet has a constitutional right to remain anonymous. It hearkens back to the days of “pamphleteering”, when those disagreeing with the government would produce and distribute anonymous pamphlets. If the government could require that the identity of protesters be known, it could intimidate critics into silence.

Because of this constitutional right, if someone wishes to remain anonymous, they can oppose the motion anonymously, forcing the plaintiff to make a sufficient showing that the speech is defamatory, and therefore not entitled to protection.

That is just what occurred here. AL has gone to court and challenged Woods’ right to discover his identity.

“How do you appear anonymously in a court proceeding?”, you ask. It’s easy. You retain counsel, usually Morris & Stone, who moves to quash the subpoena on behalf of the person, using the pseudonym. The identity of the person is never revealed. (In a couple of cases, we have seen other counsel attempt this procedure, only to make the effort pointless when they accidentally identify their client in correspondence.) Continue reading

How Not to Write a Yelp Review

How to Write a Yelp Review
Picture a typical fight on the playground at an elementary school. One child gets mad at another because she lost at tetherball, so she screams, “I don’t like you and nobody else does either!” It’s not hurtful enough for the girl to say that she doesn’t like the other girl, she seeks to add credibility to her argument by speaking for the rest of humanity.

Some people never grow up. I get calls from potential clients, needing me to defend them against a defamation action for a review they posted on Yelp. A call I received today illustrates why these people find themselves being sued for defamation. Changing the facts to protect the confidentiality of the client, here is what happened:

The caller hired a contractor to add a room to her home. The contractor did his thing, but the caller wasn’t happy with the result. She then paid another contractor to come in and do the work the way she thought it should have been done. Then she sat down at her computer to tell the world via a Yelp review what she thought about the first contractor.

She wrote about her experience with the contractor, and why she was unhappy with the work he did. So far so good. I would defend to the death her right to post that review.

But like the girl on the school yard, a dry dissertation of the problems is just not stinging enough. Someone might still do business with this contractor, and she owes the world a duty to make sure that the no good, son-of-a-gun never gets another job. Continue reading

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.

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