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Your online reputation can be one of your most valuable assets. A significant amount of time and money is spent to ensure that prospective clients have a positive first impression. However, the internet is a fickle mistress and a single unhappy client can undo all your hard work. What should you do when someone is tarnishing your reputation? Should you sue?
That was the answer for one attorney according to a recent article by the ABA Journal. When an ex-client started posting negative reviews of his criminal defense practice, Pennsylvania attorney Robert Mielnicki decided that he should sue them for defamation.
Mielnicki had maintained a top search listing on Google for “Pittsburgh Criminal Attorney” and related search terms, but that all changed after a fallout with Jason Depp, a former client. Depp was accused of the unprovoked punching of a house guest in a situation he claimed was self-defense. His mother’s homeowners insurance had provided some representation, but they were considering withdrawing and denying coverage. No insurer would cover an intentional tort, but they might cover an act of self-defense.
The details of the relationship’s breakdown and the various misunderstandings between the parties is explained at length in the complaint. They amount to the defendant’s desire to establish that he had acted in self-defense, which was somewhat in opposition to the attorney’s desire to ensure that the insurer was not a party to the suit, which would remove most of the plaintiff’s attorney’s interest in pursuing the case, since Mielnicki reasoned they were probably working on contingency. Depp fired his attorney and got a new one. Since that time the second attorney also withdrew representation, but the claim against Depp appears to have been stalled with no docket activity since 2014, so there may be some merit to Mielnicki’s defense strategy.
Depp wasn’t happy though. He expected the case to be dismissed and wanted a lawsuit filed against the man he punched. He started posting negative reviews of Mielnicki on Google’s local listings. Mielnicki says that Depp edits his post almost daily to ensure that it is the first one seen by potential clients. As a result, his perfect 5.0 rating dropped to 4.7 and calls from prospective clients went from three or four a day to none at all.
This isn’t the first time that a lawyer has sued a former client over bad reviews. A Chicago attorney sought $1.1 million in damages when her former client wrote a scathing Yelp review about her services and a California attorney sued both her former client and Yelp over the alleged defamation that took place on their platform. Neither suit appears to have been particularly successful. The Chicago attorney’s ended earlier this year in summary judgment and the California Supreme Court ruled in Yelp’s favor, leaving that attorney without much recourse.
In fact, the attorneys in these cases might well consider the “Streisand effect.” Barbara Streisand sued for the removal of a photograph of her Malibu home, which drew an enormous amount of attention to the picture. The term now refers to the unintended consequence of publicizing information through actions to remove or censor it.
Another take-away from Mielnicki’s unfortunate experience is the importance of client communication. The law is incredibly complex and the logic used in formulating a defense and communicating potential outcomes can take a considerable amount of effort to communicate to clients, but it can also prevent conflict when things don’t go your way. Unless, of course, your client feels like punching you is an act of self-defense. In that case you might want to just walk away.