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Yelp Ordered to Remove Defamatory Lawyer Review

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on June 20, 2016 12:58 PM

In a case that could set the tone for negative Yelp reviews around the country, a California appeals court affirmed a lower court's injunction that ordered Yelp to remove an angry review against a law firm. The negative Yelp review is the bane of hard-working and honest solo lawyers.

The language of the court perhaps provides a means for some attorneys and small businesses to remove defamatory reviews against their businesses whilst also avoiding some restrictions posed by the federal Communications Decency Act.

Necessary Background

The lawsuit arises out of a dispute between a particularly upset client named Bird and her former law firm, Hassell Law. Less than a month after Bird hired Hassell Law Group (HLG) for her case, HLG subbed out due to communication issues. Bird took it upon herself to post a negative review on Yelp. HLG requested her to remove it, but she dug in her heels and threatened not only to update her current review but to have someone else post another negative review. Sure enough, Bird or someone else created a fake Yelp account and posted a negative review. HLG filed a suit against Bird for defamation.

Small Wins

HLG secured a default against Bird who didn't show up to court. They also were granted an injunction that would force Yelp to remove the negative posts, a feat in itself. But Yelp moved to vacate the judgment as an "aggrieved party" on the theory that removing the posts would be "injurious" to the site.

The trial court dismissed the motion and the California circuit court affirmed. The appeals court accused Yelp of "endeavor[ing] to blur the distinction between the judgment entered against Bird which awarded Hassell damages and injunctive relief, and the removal order in the judgment which directs Yelp to effectuate the injunction against Bird."

Communications Decency Act

Perhaps more importantly, the court rejected any argument that the injunction was in violation of the federal Communications Decency Act, the federal statute that shields ISPs from liability based on user statements. The reasoning is quite simple, the court said. An injunction to remove a post is not a legal damage and thus does not step on the CDA's toes. In this case, the damages sum was assessed against Bird, not Yelp.

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