The Morris Plan – How to Force Yelp (and other sites) to Remove Defamatory Reviews

Removing defamatory reviews.

What you are about to read is a completely untested but viable approach to forcing Yelp to remove a false and defamatory review, based on recent legal developments. It is on the bleeding edge of the law, and as that name implies, it may not be without pain as it works its ways through the courts. No nasty emails if it doesn’t work for you.

This approach arises from Yelp’s irrational need to create bad precedent, as evidenced by the Yelp v. McMillan case, and most recently the Supreme Court matter of Hassell v. Bird, wherein Yelp argued that the content posted by third parties is its content.

To those unfamiliar, in Hassell v. Bird the defendant Bird defamed a law firm – the Hassell Law Group – in a Yelp review. Hassell sued Bird, and the court found that the Yelp “review” by Bird was false and defamatory, and ordered Bird to take it down. But then comes a twist unique to this case. Knowing that Bird would be unlikely to comply with the order, the court also ordered Yelp to remove the review, even though Yelp had never been a party to the action.

It is not uncommon for court orders to include persons or entities who were not parties to the action, if some action by those third parties is necessary to effectuate the order. In a typical renter eviction action, for example, only the known tenant will be named in the action, but the eviction order will apply to anyone occupying the residence, in case the tenant allowed others to move in, subleased the property, etc.

Here, the trial court felt that it was reasonable to require Yelp to take down the false review, even though it was not a party to the action. The review had been deemed to be defamatory, and it was not Yelp’s speech that was being attacked, so certainly Yelp would have no horse in the race. Indeed, presumably Yelp wants the reviews posted on its site to be as truthful as possible, so it should welcome an order that would result in the removal of a false review.

But Yelp’s business model depends on negative reviews, so it cried foul. Even after the trial court and the Court of Appeal agreed that the review was false and defamatory, and even after the Court of Appeal found that the judge’s order was entirely proper, Yelp went to the Supreme Court to fight for the right to publish false and defamatory reviews.

A Federal law called the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) does not allow a direct action against sites such as Yelp for the comments of third parties, so Hassell did exactly the right thing in failing to name Yelp in the action. Had it named Yelp, Yelp would have filed an anti-SLAPP motion, and Hassell ultimately would have been responsible for the attorney fees incurred in bringing that motion. By simply including Yelp in the injunctive relief, that was avoided.

But in its appeal briefs, both to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, Yelp argued that it WANTS to be named in actions such as this. It candidly admitted at oral argument before the Supreme Court that it would then argue that it should not have been named and would bring an anti-SLAPP motion to be dismissed from the action, but gosh darn it it should at least be NAMED.

In fact, Yelp was given notice of the legal action, and had every opportunity to intervene if it felt that Bird’s review was not defamatory and should be protected. The complaint was sent to Yelp, explaining that the review was defamatory and asking Yelp to remove it. But Yelp argued that it wants to be a real party, not some afterthought. In this one instance, Yelp may actually have a valid stance.

During oral argument in front of the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice used the analogy of all the threats of legal action against her as the Chief Justice. Many people who have no concept of judicial immunity think they will scare the Justices into changing the law with threats of lawsuits. “Dear Chief Justice, you did not recognize my right to carry a concealed surface to air missile, so I’m going to name you in a legal action for violation of my constitutionals rights.” As she pointed out, she does not feel compelled to intervene in every such action, and quite reasonably Yelp could not be expected to intervene in this action. Just as with the colorful example of the Chief Justice, while Yelp was technically put on notice of the action and afforded a chance to intervene, it is a bit of a stretch to expect that Yelp would do so.

But the facts of the case and the argument of counsel for Yelp make clear that the level of notice is a meaningless distinction. Remember, Yelp argued that even if it had been given “official” notice in the form of being named in the action, it would have just brought an anti-SLAPP motion arguing that it should not be included in the action. In other words, fail to name it in the action, and Yelp will argue it should have been named. Name it in the action, and Yelp will claim it can’t be named.

The Morris Plan

So how do we untie this Gordian knot? Thankfully, Yelp has provided (albeit unintentionally) the map that allows us to navigate the narrow straights between the prohibition against naming it as a party, on the one hand, and the concerns of the Supreme Court that Yelp be given the opportunity to object, on the other. And therein arises The Morris Plan.

When suing the person who posted the false and defamatory review on Yelp, the prayer of the complaint should include a specific request for injunctive relief against the defendant and, in the alternative, Yelp, requiring that the defamatory review be removed. The complaint should then be personally served on Yelp, and that personal service should be reflected in the proof of service.

With this procedure, Yelp will legally be put on notice that it may be asked to take down a review if (1) the court first determines that the review was false and defamatory, and (2) the defendant then fails to comply with the court order to remove the defamatory review. Yelp is then free to intervene to its heart’s content, to protect the truly bizarre right to publish defamatory content that it tried to argue in front of the Supreme Court.*

How will Yelp respond?

Here is what I predict will happen as attorneys implement The Morris Plan. The first few times Yelp is served with a complaint in this manner, it will test the waters with an anti-SLAPP motion. It will argue that the CDA protects if from liability, and although it is not officially named as a party to the action, and the complaint alleges no liability as to Yelp, it is nonetheless being “brought into” the action by way of the prayer.

This argument will be unsuccessful, because the eventuality is just too attenuated. Yelp need not respond to the complaint unless it voluntarily elects to do so. And here is the fun part. In opposition to any anti-SLAPP motion by Yelp, counsel for Plaintiff can now attach the record from the Supreme Court, wherein Yelp argued that it WANTED to be provided notice of this sort of action to afford it the opportunity to intervene. It would be logically and legally inconsistent for Yelp to now argue that complying with its own request runs afoul of the CDA.

This approach should be more than sufficient to satisfy the concerns of the Supreme Court, because Yelp is afforded two opportunities to defend its self-proclaimed “right to post defamatory reviews.” It can intervene in the action upon service of the complaint, or it can wait for the determination by the court that the review was false and defamatory, wait to see if the reviewer complies with the court order and removes the content, and only then challenge the court’s order as to Yelp.

The best way to look at this conceptually is that Yelp is the one seeking affirmative relief, and therefore it does not violate the CDA to make it go to court to seek that relief. Allow me to make an analogy to illustrate the point.

There is a very disturbing trend occurring in Canada and England, where the governments are mandating certain speech from its citizens. Although free speech is often viewed as a western concept, in fact it is only America that has a guarantee of free speech in its Constitution. So let’s say that this trend spreads to America, and it is decided that the terms “Chinese food” and “Chinese restaurant” are offensive, and therefore illegal. The citizenry is instead mandated to use the terms “Asian food” and “Asian restaurant.” This concerns Yelp, because it knows many of its users will post reviews about Chinese restaurants and Chinese food, and it wants to protect them from the speech police. Any attempt by Yelp to challenge the law would be on its own and would have nothing to do with the CDA, even as it users were dragged off to the Gulags. It should be remembered that by its own terms, the CDA provides that it in no way impacts state laws unless they are contrary to the CDA. So, for example, California has statutes that define libel, and there is no prohibition against determining that a review posted on Yelp is defamatory, and ordering that it be removed. Doing so is not contrary to the CDA.

Thus, when Yelp contends that it wants an opportunity to be heard on whether a review that it did not write or post is defamatory, it is asking for affirmative relief, and it is not placing any improper burden on Yelp to require that it pursue such affirmative relief.

Lest it be argued that Yelp’s inclusion in the takedown order is not necessary since the court has full contempt power against the original reviewer, the Supreme Court saw right through that claim by Yelp. First, some just don’t care about contempt orders. We have all heard stories about husbands and wives who voluntarily go to jail rather than to comply with some aspect of a court’s divorce decree. But even more persuasively, one Justice pointed out that Yelp’s own Terms of Use provide that it can block reviewers from removing their own reviews. An order that the reviewer must remove the false and defamatory review would be meaningless if Yelp won’t permit the reviewer to do so. And that shows the wisdom of the decision by the trial court and Court of Appeal in concluding that Yelp could be included in the takedown order.

This technique will be especially effective against Yelp, since it asked for it.

This approach may well work with any review site, but it will be especially effective as against Yelp since it is officially on record as requesting that it be named in any action that might require it to take down a defamatory review. Further, the outcome of Hassell v. Bird will likely have no negative impact on The Morris Plan. If the court concludes simply that Yelp can be included in any takedown order, all the better. But if the court holds that in this particular case Yelp was not afforded sufficient due process, this approach deals with that issue.

Again, no promises, but thanks to Yelp, this approach seems unassailable.

* The CDA protects websites from any liability for content posted by third parties, specifically because it is not the websites’ own content. Yelp argued that the review posted by Bird was also Yelp’s content, and Yelp therefore had an independent right to protect. As an example, it cited to its star review system and algorithm. The reasoning is hard to follow, so bear with me a moment.

Say nine people posted five-star reviews about Hassell, and Bird then posted a one-star review (no doubt using the cliche, “I wish I could post a zero-star review”). This results in a ranking of 4.6 stars for Hassell. But if Yelp is required to remove that false, one-star review, Hassell would end up with a five star average based on the remaining nine reviews. By the reasoning of Yelp, that is why the content is also “Yelp’s content,” because removing it will impact its ranking system. As I’m sure I don’t need to explain (but the point apparently eluded Yelp), yes, it does impact the overall ranking, but only to make it more accurate since it removes the false review. Under the same false logic, Yelp contended that it also impacts its algorithm, because the algorithm failed to flag the review as a false review, and therefore concluded that Hassell should get a 4.6 star ranking. Unless and until Yelp’s algorithm deems the review to be false, it must remain, or at a minimum Yelp must be permitted to defend it, Yelp argued.

One Response to “The Morris Plan – How to Force Yelp (and other sites) to Remove Defamatory Reviews”

  • […] I was invited to file a friend of the court brief in the Supreme Court on the Hassell v. Bird appeal, and oral argument was just heard. After hearing the argument by counsel for Yelp, it occurred to me that the ruling of the Supreme Court on Hassell v. Bird will likely not impact the ability to include Yelp in a takedown order. Yelp argued that it WANTS to be named in any lawsuit wherein the plaintiff is seeking to have a reviewer remove a defamatory post. Even if the Supreme Court finds that the specific circumstances of Hassell v. Bird did not warrant including Yelp in the takedown order, with its arguments on appeal Yelp has essentially provided a road map to obtaining a takedown order where Yelp is involved. I call this approach The Morris Plan (see what I did there?), and the full details can be found in the very detailed article, The Morris Plan – How to Force Yelp (and other sites) to Remove Defamatory Reviews. […]

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

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