Consumer review sites continue to grow in popularity. Sites like Angie’s List, Avvo, and Yelp (to name but a few) allow people to post their experiences with lawyers, doctors, hairdressers, restaurants, roofers, and just about anyone else, and assign a rating to the service provider they used. When used honestly, these sites can provide a benefit to consumers. But they can also provide a mechanism for bogus reviews intended to maliciously destroy a business’s reputation. Here in Virginia, negative reviews are often the subject of defamation lawsuits.
In general, the First Amendment protects expressions of opinions on these sites. All legitimate reviews, both positive and negative, can help consumers come to well-informed conclusions. Negative reviews, however, cross the line if they include false statements of fact. Consumers are free to express unfavorable opinions regarding their experiences with a service provider, but the First Amendment does not allow them to defame the service provider by posting false information.
A Texas lawyer recently filed a defamation action, claiming that a negative review that he received on Citysearch.com was not only derogatory but false and was the result of a conspiracy to defame him, evidently in retaliation for his decision to fire a paralegal at his law firm. Attorney Michael Weston sued his former paralegal and the man believed to be her husband.
Weston says in his complaint that he fired the paralegal for insubordination on November 6, 2010, after she had been on the job less than a month. A couple of weeks later, he claims, the paralegal and/or her husband wrote a review on Citysearch.com, claiming to be former clients of the firm and stating that they had “found him to be condescending to my situation and cold in demeanor,” adding that “if you are looking for a factory that turns out debt settlements then this attorney is for you.”
Weston claims in his lawsuit that the statements were false in that neither his paralegal nor husband had ever been clients of his law firm. He contends that he lost business because of the review, and he is seeking lost profits of $250,000 and reputational damages of $1 million.