One of your most important assets is your reputation. And with more and more potential clients looking to the Internet when researching attorneys, online reviews can have a big impact on your practice. But usually, when a disgruntled client posts a malicious review, there's not much a lawyer can do about it.
That wasn't the case for one Florida attorney, though. When Ann-Marie Guistibelli's client left her a false and disparaging online review, she took him to court -- and won $350,000 in punitive damages.
Big Punitive Damages for That Bad Review
The whole ordeal began when Guistibelli took on Copia Blake as a client. Guistibelli was to guide Blake through her divorce with Peter Birzon. Things didn't go very well. As Florida's Fourth District Court of Appeal explains, "After a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship between Guistibelli and her client, Blake and oddly, Birzon as well, took to the Internet to post defamatory reviews of Guistibelli."
These reviews weren't just your run of the mill "she sucks!" postings, either, though they definitely contained those sentiments too. Instead, Blake and Birzon also wrote that Guistibelli had repeatedly misrepresented her fees. According to the couple, Guistibelli "altered her charges to four times the original quote with no explanation," and then submitted doctored evidence to the court to cover it up.
Instead of ignoring the reviews or responding online, Guistibelli did the lawyerly thing: she sued the couple for libel and won $350,000 in punitive damages after Blake and Birzon admitted in court that the statements were false.
No Free Speech Protections
Blake and Birzon had argued that their statements were simply opinions, protected by the First Amendment, and not actually defamatory. Indeed, many negative online reviews are simply protected opinions that the reviewed have no recourse against. "The worst lawyer ever" is about as actionable as "the best divorce attorney of all time."
But the court easily saw through the couple's opinion argument. In a brief, five-page opinion, the Florida court of appeal affirmed the damages last Wednesday, noting that the reviews contained demonstrably false factual allegations, not opinions.
It's also worth mentioning that the court found no need to find actual damages or malice. While the Florida Supreme Court had abandoned libel per se against media defendants, the court of appeals refused to extend that ruling to non-media parties, allowing a presumption of damages in a libel per se action.
So, Florida lawyers, congrats. You can now do more than just fume when you get a defamatory online review.