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Posts Tagged ‘Defamation’

Yelp Can’t Be Ordered to Remove Defamatory Reviews by A California Lawyer’s Unhappy Former Clients

Posted on: December 3rd, 2018

By: Frank Olah

On July 2, 2018, in Hassell v. Bird (2018) 5 Cal.5th 522, the California Supreme Court held that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 prohibits courts from ordering Yelp to remove defamatory consumer reviews posted by an attorney’s former client.

Section 230 states that “[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Moreover, “[n]o cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section.”  (Section 230(e)(3).)

The Hassell court held that Section 230’s broad immunity protects “interactive computer services” such as Yelp from defamation liability even in circumstances where Yelp was not itself sued for defamation. The court reasoned that a defamed plaintiff should not be able to avoid the immunity protections of Section 230 by intentionally not naming Yelp as a defendant. Instead, some defamed plaintiffs tried to circumvent Section 230’s immunity by enforcing a judgment against the defamer defendant, and then using the judgment and injunction to remove the defamatory Yelp posts. Such a strategic end-run around Section 230 is not permitted.

In June 2012, Ava Bird hired attorney Dawn Hassell to prosecute a personal injury lawsuit. After a few months, Hassell concluded Bird was unhappy and withdrew. Bird posted negative reviews on Yelp about Hassell’s lawyering skills. Hassell asked Bird to remove them; Bird declined. Hassell proceeded to sue only Bird for libel.

After a default prove-up hearing, the trial court entered judgment for Hassell for $557,919 in damages, apparently caused by three one-star Yelp reviews. The trial court also ordered both Bird and Yelp to remove the three defamatory reviews. Upon being served with the court’s order, Yelp moved to set aside and vacate the default judgment. The trial court denied the motion. The Court of Appeal affirmed. It found the removal order did not did not impose any “liability” on Yelp, as that term is used in Section 230(e)(3), since the default judgment and damages were against Bird and not Yelp.

The California Supreme Court reversed. It observed that the “immunity provisions within section 230 have been widely and consistently interpreted to confer broad immunity against defamation liability for those who use the Internet to publish information that originated from another source.” (Id. at 535.) It found that “lawsuits seeking to hold a service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher’s traditional editorial functions—such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content—are barred.” The Court found that Section 230 confers “blanket immunity from tort liability for online republication of third party content.” The Court reasoned that subjecting companies like Yelp to defamation liability for the republication of online content would tend to chill online speech. This chilling effect could materialize in the high costs for companies like Yelp of having to investigate potentially defamatory postings.

The Court found that Yelp was being held to account for nothing more than its ongoing decision to publish the challenged reviews. The Court concluded that Hassell’s legal remedies lay solely against Bird, and could not extend to Yelp. Notably, the Court ruled that Hassell had powerful remedies available to her, i.e. “the judgment requires Bird to undertake, at a minimum, reasonable efforts to secure the removal of her posts. A failure to comply with a lawful court order is a form of civil contempt… the consequences of which can include imprisonment.”

On October 18, 2018, Hassell filed a petition for writ of certiorari urging the United States Supreme Court to review the decision, which she argue renders California courts powerless to compel companies like Yelp to remove clearly unlawful content. Apparently, Hassell is not convinced that pursuing a contempt order against Bird and demanding that her former client be thrown in jail will improve her Yelp rating.

One criticism of the Hassell Court’s reasoning is its naïve willingness to adopt the fiction that Yelp is just a folksy old-fashioned newspaper publisher exercising a publisher’s traditional editorial functions. The reality is that Yelp applies its own judgment to award star ratings to businesses. In this case, Hassell claimed that the manner in which Yelp utilized Bird’s reviews caused its rating to drop to 4.5 stars. The trial court had observed that Yelp featured one of Bird’s defamatory reviews as a “Recommended Review” and that Yelp had not factored many positive reviews into Hassell’s overall rating. That is to say, Yelp promoted Bird’s negative reviews and gave them greater weight than many more positive reviews causing Hassell’s star-rating to drop.  And the lower Yelp star-rating caused Hassell to lose business.

Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court will not want to parse the issue so finely. But Congress may wish to consider whether it makes sense to update Section 230 to allow a company like Yelp to be compelled to remove postings that the original poster was ordered to remove.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Frank Olah at [email protected].

Facebook And Association Criticism: How To Address Unfounded Allegations Against An Association And Its Board

Posted on: October 12th, 2018

By: Jonathan Romvary

How far can a Board go in fighting against what they believe is unfair homeowner criticism? Can they publish a formal response to unfounded allegations? How should Associations address online criticism on unofficial Facebook groups created by dissatisfied homeowners?

These issues were partially addressed in a recent unpublished California Appeals Court decision in Kulick v. Leisure Village Association (2018). Kulick involved two consecutive lawsuits between a homeowner who was anonymously publishing an unofficial newsletter that was highly critical of his Homeowner’s Association, the Association’s Board and its attorneys. Unfortunately for the homeowner, the HOAs rules specifically prohibited the dissemination of anonymous publications to the Association’s members and the Association successfully filed suit against the homeowner for breaching the Association’s covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) and was awarded more than $125,000.00 including punitive damages.

After losing his appeal, and apparently not learning from the prior lawsuit, the homeowner began republishing his anonymous newsletter criticizing the Association’s Board, this time asserting that the Board and its officers committed perjury, extortion, obstruction of justice, racketeering, and lying and cheating. The Association’s attorneys responded to the most recent allegations by distributing an official letter to all of the homeowners addressing the allegations as a “reckless communication” containing “unfounded, inaccurate, and spiteful allegations” against the Association and detailing the prior lawsuit against the homeowner. Feeling attacked by the HOA, the homeowner filed a lawsuit against the Association for, among other things, defamation. The HOA defended itself saying its actions were protected under California’s anti-SLAPP laws which are designed to protect defendants who have been sued for acts in furtherance of a constitutionally protected right of free speech or petition. The trial court agreed, finding that the Association’s letter constituted “protected activity” as a public writing relating to an issue of public interest to the Association’s homeowners’, i.e. the lawsuit between the Association and homeowner. Ultimately the California Appellate Court upheld the trial court’s ruling.

From Kulick, it is clear that Associations may respond to individual criticisms that are not legally permissible (e.g. false assertions of fact, etc.) and have certain rights against defamation published by its members. However, it remains unclear to what extent Associations can restrict alternative forms of publications, such as Facebook community groups or anonymous Twitter accounts. In the age of Facebook, where publishing and distribution is free and easy, Associations must remain vigilant. False accusations and anonymous publications can cause significant disruption to the operation and reputation of an Association. Associations should be alert for publications containing false assertions or publications that purport to be official communication and should address any statements that defame the association, its board of directors, managing agent, or employees.

If you have any questions on how your Association can be proactive and protect itself against unofficial homeowner publications or would like more information, please contact Jonathan Romvary at [email protected].

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice To Say….You Probably Shouldn’t Post It!

Posted on: August 22nd, 2018

By: Shaun DaughertySamantha Skolnick

Mothers all over the world have admonished their children: “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  It may lose something when translated into some obscure dialects, but the sentiment was still there.  Now that we live in the age of technology, it appears that the old saying could use a facelift.  “If you don’t have anything nice to say, you should not type it anywhere on the internet.”  That is especially true if you are criticizing doctors and hospitals.

A wave of litigation has been emerging involving doctors and hospitals, but in these instances, they are not the targets, they are the plaintiffs.  Doctors and hospitals are starting to sue their patients for negative reviews on social media. The most recent example earned itself an article in USA Today where retired Colonel David Antoon had to pay $100 to settle felony charges for emailing his surgeon articles that the doctor found threatening as well as posting a list on Yelp of the surgeries the urologist had scheduled for the same time as his own.  Antoon alleged that his surgery left him incontinent and impotent and he had tried to appeal to the court of public opinion.

In other news, a Cleveland physician sued a former patient for defamation after the negative internet reviews of her doctor reached the level of deliberately false and defamatory statements. The case may be headed to trial in August. Close by, a Michigan hospital sued three relatives for Facebook posts and picketing which amounted to defamation, tortious interference and invasion of privacy. The family claimed that the hospital had mistreated their deceased grandmother.

We live in a country that ensures freedom of speech, and that right is exercised more than ever with the advent of social media and an ever-growing audience of participants.  However, there can be consequences if the speech is inaccurate or defamatory in nature.  While some attorneys, like Steve Hyman, cite the law in stating that “[t]ruth is an absolute defense. If you do that and don’t make a broader conclusion that they’re running a scam factory then you can write a truthful review that ‘I had a bad time with this doctor.’”  Other commentators, like Evan Mascagni from the Public Participation Project, tout avoiding broad generalizations, “If you’re going to make a factual assertion, be able to back that up and prove that fact.” That is defense against defamation claims 101.

The world of non-confrontational criticism on social medial makes it easy and tempting to post an emotionally fueled rant.  But beware!  You want to avoid a situation like that of Michelle Levine who has spent nearly $20,000 defending herself against a suit filed by her Gynecologist over defamation, libel, and emotional distress. The 24-hour rule is still a viable alternative to hitting “send” or “post.”  Type it out, let it sit and ruminate for a bit, and then decided if you are going to post the negative comments for the world to see.  Some opinions are worth sharing, or you may decide…. don’t say anything at all.

If you have any questions or would like more information please contact Shaun Daugherty at [email protected] or Samantha Skolnick at [email protected].

Internet Defamation: Parents Can Be Held Liable for Children’s Facebook Posts

Posted on: October 16th, 2014

By: Wayne S. Melnick

One of the newest and most quickly developing areas of tort liability is regarding torts committed over the internet. The most common “traditional” tort that occurs (or is alleged to have occurred) when it comes to social media posting is for defamation. A recent case is Georgia has just affirmed the potential for parental liability for the posts made by their children in this “wild west” frontier of internet tort liability.

In Boston v. Athearn, 2014 WL 5068649 (Georgia Ct. of App. Case No. A14A0971, decided October 10, 2014), the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed (in part) a trial court decision granting summary judgment to the defendants and sending the case back for trial. In Boston, Alexandria (“Alex”) Boston, through her parents, brought suit against Dustin Athearn, his parents, and other defendants when, posing as Alex, Dustin created a Facebook account and profile and posted photographs and statements in that forum that constituted libel under Georgia law. In a nutshell, Dustin and a female friend of his used the Athearn family computer to create the account and made posts that indicated racist viewpoints and a homosexual orientation. Dustin and the friend also sent out “friend” requests to many of Alex’s classmates, teachers, and extended family members. Within a day or two, the account was connected as Facebook “friends” with over 70 people. Dustin and the friend continued to add information and posted status updates and comments on other users’ pages that were graphically sexual, racist, or otherwise offensive; with some falsely stating that Alex was on a medical regimen for mental health and that she took illegal drugs.

When Dustin’s parents were informed (after the truth was discovered at school), they disciplined Dustin and forbid him for one week from seeing his friends after school. Critically, the unauthorized page, however remained accessible on Facebook for an additional 11 months and was eventually deactivated by Facebook officials approximately 2 weeks after the lawsuit was filed. During the 11 months the unauthorized profile and page could be viewed, the Athearns made no attempt to view the unauthorized page, and they took no action to determine the content of the false, profane, and ethnically offensive information that Dustin was charged with electronically distributing. They did not attempt to learn to whom Dustin had distributed the false and offensive information or whether the distribution was ongoing. They did not tell Dustin to delete the page, they made no attempt to determine whether the false and offensive information Dustin was charged with distributing could be corrected, deleted, or retracted.

In reversing the grant of summary judgment to Dustin’s parents, the appellate court found that there were questions of fact to be resolved by a jury whether Dustin’s parents were “negligent in failing to compel Dustin to remove the Facebook page once they were notified of its existence.” This theory of liability was not grounded in vicarious liability, but rather direct liability – whether Dustin’s parents were, themselves, negligent in failing to supervise and control their child with regard to conduct which posed an unreasonable risk of harming others. The court grounded the potential liability not in the parents’ allowing Dustin original access to the internet, but rather, because they continued to be responsible for supervising Dustin’s use of the computer and Internet after learning that he had created the unauthorized Facebook profile.

This case opens a very potentially slippery slope to parents and what they might be held legally responsible for once they learn of the harm their child is causing on the internet. The message is clear – once parents know their child has done harm with digital weapons, it is incumbent upon the parents to end the harm or potentially face ultimate liability for failing to do so. We will continue to watch this case and see if, after trial, liability is ultimately laid at the feet of the parents.