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Bad Online Review? Think Twice Before Freaking Out and Suing

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 27, 2015 11:59 AM

The Internet is bloated with over-opinionated jerks. Everyone knows this; but it's never anything to lose sleep over until someone comes after you personally. If your reputation is attacked by an anonymous online user on Yelp or some other public site, what should you do?

First, take a deep breath. Before you do anything, think about how your reactions will make you appear. Possibly the worst thing you can do is freak out and threaten to sue.

One Virginia immigration attorney learned this lesson the hard way, sending a cease and desist order to a single Yelper who took issue with his views on "anchor babies." Now, attorney Kyle Barella is facing publicity much more damaging than one negative online review. And he's just one name in a long list of attorneys who've turned a bad review into an outright disaster.

A Bad Review Isn't Per Se Libel

Barella's saga began after he appeared on the conservative news website Breibart and called for an end to birthright citizenship. There's nothing wrong with delving into a controversial issue -- it can be great free press -- but attorneys need to be prepared to take some criticism for their public opinions. And that's just what Barella got -- a single, one-star Yelp review (Barella's only review at the time) wondering why an immigration attorney would "hold political views that are very strongly anti-immigrant and borderline racist."

Now, Yelp reviews matter. Though Yelp hasn't taken over the lawyer-review world, many customers who use Yelp will refuse to even consider businesses with under three stars. Barella apparently took Yelp's importance seriously. But, instead of replying with an explanation or contacting Yelp to remove a non-customer review, Barella did what so many lawyers do instinctively. He threatened to sue.

The problem? Barella's cease and desist letter was wrong. Though he claimed the review was libelous and defamatory, the author's statements are very clearly protected opinions. Barella's threats may have gotten the review removed, but they also got him mocked throughout the Internet, including the well-trafficked law and free speech blog Popehat.

Of course, Barella isn't the first lawyer to have threatened litigation against a disgruntled online poster. New York divorce lawyer Gary Field had an unhappy customer post online, branding him "the most worst attorney licensed to practice in the State of New York ... Overall, he is dumb." Worse, the reviewer said Field was a "fool attorney" who "practices fraud." Unlike Barella, Field didn't just threaten to sue, he actually did -- and saw his case quickly tossed out by the courts.

Think Twice Before Engaging Online Reviewers

Lawyers who don't threaten reviewers with litigation should still be cautious before jumping into a back-and-forth with online reviewers. Sure, if someone actually misrepresents facts or outright lies, a defamation suit may be possible. But, in many cases, lawyers could be opening themselves up to further complaints by engaging with online reviewers.

First, overzealous and potentially dishonest cease and desist letters can blow up in your face, as Barella learned. Secondly, if the reviewer is a former client, there's the risk that you will reveal confidential information during your online message war. That's exactly what happened to Betty Tsamis, who allegedly responded to a bad online review with details of her representation and found herself before an attorney disciplinary board.

So learn from these lawyers' mistakes, lest their suffering be in vain.

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