Posts Tagged ‘On-line Reviews’

Yelp Sues the McMillan Law Group, Claiming it Posted Fake Reviews

YelpI get probably two calls a month from potential clients, complaining that after they refused to subscribe to Yelp’s services, Yelp responded by removing most or all of their positive reviews. If true, then Yelp cannot seriously contend that it is interested in the integrity of its reviews.

The claims seem supported by a recent action by Yelp. In this case, a small San Diego law firm, the McMillan Law Group, subscribed to Yelp’s services, allegedly based on representations that were made about the number of page views it would receive. When the results fell below what the McMillan Law Group says was promised, it demanded a refund. Yelp balked, and the law firm sued in small claims court. The firm prevailed, and obtained a $2,700 judgment against Yelp.

Yelp appealed, and doubled-down by filing its own action back against the McMillan Law Group. It seems that Yelp had been busy looking into the law firm’s positive reviews, and decided that they did not all adhere to Yelp’s terms of use. Yelp’s complaint is a sight to behold, alleging that the McMillan Law Group is liable for breach of contract, intentional interference with contractual relations, unfair competition and false advertising. Yelp alleges:

“The McMillan Law Group, a San Diego law firm specializing in bankruptcy, exemplifies the behavior that Yelp combats daily through its algorithms and investigations—the planting of fake reviews intended to sway potential clients with false testimonials. The McMillan Law Group’s efforts to mislead consumers are particularly brazen and disappointing given they have targeted some of the most vulnerable consumers of all—individuals who may be facing bankruptcy and who are looking for potential legal representation.”

In the complaint, Yelp details its investigative results, alleging that multiple Yelp user accounts were created from a computer located at the same McMillan Law Group IP address used to create reviews about that law firm.

In an interview with Bloomberg Law, Julian McMillan stated, “It’s bullying tactics. I get it. They want me to spend some money but I just don’t see how they come a winner in this [from a PR standpoint].”

As McMillan also notes, Yelp’s lawsuit seems like a really bone-headed move from a discovery standpoint. Since Yelp is claiming that false reviews by the McMillan Law Group have interfered with its contractual relations and caused it damages, it has now made all of its business practices and income fair game for discovery. It will also be very interesting to learn whether Yelp routinely brings such lawsuits to maintain the integrity of its reviews, or does so only in response to being sued.

For a detailed discussion of the love fest between Yelp and the McMillan Law Group, see the article at Bloomberg Law.

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The Good, The Bad, and The SLAPP Lawsuit: Don’t Sue For Speech Without Consulting With Counsel

I came across the following article by Darren Chaker who, according to the article, spent many years litigating a free speech case, apparently as the plaintiff.  His article provides a nice summary of SLAPP law as it applies to posting critical comments on-line, and the  importance of consulting with counsel before filing any free speech suit.  [Reprinted here with permission.]

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While legitimate criticism is protected, postings which constitute defamation are not. Ibid.; see also Chaker v. Crogan, 428 F.3d 1215, 1223 (9th Cir. 2005). The Supreme Court has explicitly held that “defamation…[is] ‘not within the area of constitutionally protected speech.'” R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 383 (1992) (quoted in Chaker, supra, 428 F.3d 1215, 1223 (9th Cir. 2005)).

Prior to filing a lawsuit for comments posted online, it is important to know what a “SLAPP” lawsuit is and if what you believe is defamation is that, or merely protected speech. The acronym “SLAPP” stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, see California Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16. I cite California law, however most states have similar SLAPP laws as California. The crux of SLAPP law allows someone who is sued for doing activity which is protected by the federal or state constitution. If the Defendant’s activity sued for is protected activity, then an anti-SLAPP motion could be filed. An anti-SLAPP motion usually seeks dismissal of “lawsuits that ‘masquerade as ordinary lawsuit’ but are brought to deter common citizens from exercising their political or legal rights or to punish them from doing so.” Batzel v. Smith, 333 F.3d 1018, 1023-24 (9th Cir. 2003).

Keep a couple of things in mind before you go to court:

• Once a Plaintiff files a lawsuit, and Defendant files an anti-SLAPP motion, the complaint is frozen. Thus, Plaintiff cannot amend the lawsuit to avoid the court ruling on the anti-SLAPP motion. (Simmons v. Allstate Ins. Co. (2001) 92 CA4th 1068, 1073) Amendments could frustrate the Legislature’s objective of providing a “quick and inexpensive method of unmasking and dismissing such suits.” See, Simmons at p. 400)

• Plaintiff has the option to dismiss the lawsuit. Nonetheless, Code of Civil Procedure § 425.16 gives the trial court limited jurisdiction to decide whether to award attorney fees and costs to Defendant. (Law Offices of Andrew L. Ellis v. Yang, supra, 178 CA4th at 879, 100 CR3d at 777-778)

• A typical California attorney with 10+ years of experience bills from $325-500/hr. If a person files a lawsuit based on defamation, or other protected right, and loses, the court must award attorney fees to “adequately compensate the defendant for the expense of responding to a baseless lawsuit,” Dove Audio, Inc. v. Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman, 47 Cal. App. 4th 777, 785 (1996). As such, if you lose your case, attorney fees of $12,000-25,000 are typical.

• If you are self represented, this doesn’t buy you any credit with the court for suing someone for doing what the law allowed them to do (e.g. free speech). Self-represented litigants are held to the same standard as those represented by trained legal counsel. (Rappleyea v. Campbell (1994) 8 Cal.4th 975, 984- 985)  Thus, you can’t say in opposition, “Opps I didn’t know”.

In short, I strongly recommend do NOT file a lawsuit unless an attorney, who is competent in First Amendment law, agrees to file it for you.

I litigated a cutting edge First Amendment case for 7 of its 10 year lifespan. Chaker v. Crogan, 428 F.3d 1215 C.A.9 (Cal.),2005, Cert. denied, 547 U.S. 1128, 126 S.Ct. 2023, invalidated a statute on First Amendment grounds and overruled the California Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in People v. Stanistreet, 127 Cal.Rptr.2d 633. Soon after Chaker v. Crogan, it was also used to strike down Nevada’s analogous statute forcing the legislature to rewrite the law and used as the backbone authority in Gibson v. City of Kirkland, 2009 WL 564703, *2+ (W.D.Wash. Mar 03, 2009). My case continues to be a leading case on viewpoint discrimination. My case is active, living and breathing-forever helping people who once felt oppressed.

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Darren_Chaker

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
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