Internet Defamation

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

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Slut or Not a Slut, that is the Question

Is calling someone a “slut” defamatory?

I have said in the past that the answer is no, because it is the sort of word that is so imprecise in its definition, that it is simply impossible to show that it is verifiably false. The speaker might think that anyone who engages in pre-marital sex is a slut, or that a woman who wears a skirt less than two inches above her knee is a slut, or whatever.

So a case out of Australia caught my eye, because they are actually trying to create some litmus test to determine what would make one a slut. The case involves one Emma Husar, who is a Federal MP. She is suing BuzzFeed Australia, because it reported that she’s a “slut who boasts about who she has had sex with.”

Here’s where it gets fun.

BuzzFeed is asserting a truth defense, arguing that it can show that Husar flashed a fellow MP, Sharon Stone style, had a relationship with another MP, and engaged in sexualized conduct toward her physiotherapist. In BuzzFeed’s estimation, that makes Husar a slut.

Counsel for Husar, however, is seeking to strike the truth defense, claiming that even if BuzzFeed can prove the listed activities, that would not make Husar a slut.

This is why I love the law.

No, I Wasn’t Kidding About the Wisdom of Walking Away

Internet Defamation - Take the Settlement Fool

Just two weeks ago I posted comments on the wisdom of taking a walk-away settlement when you are a defendant with no moral high ground in a defamation action.  I told the story of how the defendant in the case I prosecuted was afforded the opportunity to take down the defamatory comments and walk away without paying any damages, rejected it, and now must pay over $200,000 to my client as a result of his hubris.

You’d think that might have at least given the defendant and his counsel in a different case a moment of pause in the trial that followed two weeks later.  My client sued the defendant, who then filed a frivolous cross-complaint, apparently thinking that would give him some leverage.  The parties had discussed settlement throughout the year-long litigation process, but the defendant had always insisted on money coming his way, and there was no way that was going to happen.

Come the day of trial, the judge conducted one final settlement conference, and my client, knowing the defendant doesn’t have much money anyway, graciously offered to just walk away.  There it was; that same moment in time discussed in my last posting, where the defendant is afforded the opportunity to avoid sending his life, or at the very least his finances, in a bad direction.  But the defendant refused and demanded payment of a ridiculous amount of money on his ridiculous claim.  My client declined.

With no settlement, the case proceeded to trial and I called the defendant as my first witness in a trial that both sides had estimated would last three days.  Two hours into my examination, the judge spontaneously announced that he had heard all he needed to hear, and unless defendant had some “miraculous evidence” he was going to find in favor of my client.  In chambers, he said to defense counsel, “Mr. Morris is very methodically cutting your client to pieces.”  He suggested the parties and attorneys talk settlement again.  My client said fine, and said he would dismiss the action in exchange for defendant paying the same ridiculous amount defendant had been demanding.  Defendant agreed, and we set up a ten year payment schedule, non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  Ouch.

If you got the tie-in between the photo above and the article, give yourself a prize.  It’s from the movie The Road Warrior, and the gentleman in the photo is imploring the people at the oil refinery to “just walk away” and let him and his warriors take the gasoline.  I think I may start dressing like that for settlement conferences.

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

Morris & Stone Victory — $200,000 from Defendant Who Failed to See Wisdom of Walking Away

Perhaps because the adrenaline and endorphins flow during a courtroom battle, I become very thoughtful in the calm that follows. I won a small but satisfying court victory recently in an Internet defamation case, and it made me realize how much the process mirrors a scene from a movie.

The movie is Taken. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably saw the scene to which I refer since it was shown in the trailers. The main character, who we come to learn is some sort of retired Über-spy, is on the phone with his teenage daughter when she is kidnapped. He hears the bad guy pick up the phone, and he calmly gives the following speech:

I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know what you want.
If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money.
But what I do have are a very particular set of skills;
skills I have acquired over a very long career.
Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.
If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it.
But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.

Most every Internet defamation case I handle starts with such a moment. Not nearly so dramatic, of course, and there are no deaths involved if the defendant doesn’t listen to me, but the concept of a choice is the same.

Most of my defamation clients aren’t seeking money initially; they just want the bad guy to stop defaming them. My marching orders are usually just to get the person to take down the false comments. So I write to the bad guy, explaining that this does not need to go any further. He strayed from the path and said and did some things he shouldn’t have, but if he just takes down the posts and walks away, “that will be the end of it.”

That is the moment in time. I am affording the prospective defendant the opportunity to avoid sending his life in a bad direction. I am less of an advocate and more of a caregiver, just trying to convince the patient to stop engaging in self-destructive behavior. But he makes the ultimate decision whether to accept that help, or to continue on his path.

In Taken, the kidnapper could not help himself and responded by saying, “good luck.” He did not take the skill set seriously enough, thinking he would be impossible to find. Today’s defendant also did not take the skill set seriously enough, thinking since he lived across the country we would never pursue him. He was one of a few on-line competitors with my client, and had engaged in some trash-talking that escalated into defamatory comments about my client’s business practices. All he had to do was take down the false statements and walk away and that would have been the end of it. He refused, and today a judge ordered him to take down the false statements, never to make the statements again, at risk of fines and imprisonment, and to pay my client over $200,000.

Pick your battles. I will defend to the death your right to post honest comments on the Internet. If you want to take on a plaintiff that you feel is trying to shake you down, then I’m with you one hundred percent. But don’t get into a court battle just to prove who has the bigger . . . lawyer. The defendant in this case had no moral high ground. He knew what he was saying about my client was untrue, so why on earth wouldn’t he take the opportunity to walk away? As a famous philosopher once sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them.”

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.

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.

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

Aaron Morris

Morris & Stone, LLP

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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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