Two years after a California lawyer won a default judgment against a former client accused of posting defamatory reviews of the law firm on Yelp, those reviews remained online. However, this week a California appeals court ruled that Yelp must finally remove these reviews.
This case goes back to 2012, when a woman hired the law firm to represent her in a personal injury claim. That relationship only lasted a handful of weeks before the client and lawyer parted ways.
Shortly after the lawyer ceased representing the woman, she allegedly published a review on Yelp, giving the firm one out of five stars, and stating that her lawyer deserved an even lower rating than that. The review accused the lawyer of “making a bad situation worse,” and failing to speak with both the client and insurance company because “her mom had a broken leg.”
The law firm first asked the woman to remove the review, which they contend contained defamatory and false statements. In response, the woman refused to remove the Jan. 2013 review, and allegedly threatened to post an updated review, and to have another review posted by someone else.
The law firm alleged that the woman — or possibly someone she knew — subsequently posted a second review in Feb. 2013, which the firm also said was defamatory and false.
The lawyers then sued the woman, accusing her of defamation, trade libel, false light invasion of privacy, and emotional distress. In Jan. 2014, after the defendant failed to respond to the complaint or show up at court, the court awarded the law firm nearly $558,000 in damages and ordered that Yelp remove the reviews in question.
Yelp, which was not a party to the original defamation lawsuit, objected to the order, saying that the law firm had failed to actually prove that the reviews are defamatory. The site filed a motion to vacate the judgment, arguing that Yelp had standing to bring the motion as an “aggrieved party,” even though it was a nonparty in the lawsuit.
The court denied the motion in Sept. 2014, and Yelp appealed. This week, a state appeals court once again came down in favor of removing the reviews.
“Throughout proceedings in the trial court and on appeal, Yelp has endeavored to blur the distinction between the judgment entered against [the woman] which awarded Hassell damages and injunctive relief, and the removal order in the judgment which directs Yelp to effectuate the injunction against [the woman],” reads the order [PDF].
The judge disagreed with Yelp’s contention that removing the defamatory statements would “injuriously affect” the review website.
“Yelp’s claimed interest in maintaining [its] Web site as it deems appropriate does not include the right to second-guess a final court judgment which establishes that statements by a third party are defamatory and thus unprotected by the First Amendment,” the court ruled.
And, while the removal order may aggrieve Yelp, it did not impose liability on the company, as Yelp has never been accused of wrongdoing in this case.
A Yelp spokesperson tells Courthouse News that the ruling “undermines the free speech and due process rights of consumer reviewers and the online platforms that host their content.”
“It gives those who dislike certain speech — here, a lawyer who was upset at reviews from her clients — the ability to require their removal while denying the website hosting that speech the ability to defend its editorial rights to publish the speech or rebut the claims,” the spokesperson said.
This piece was originally published in the Consumerist