LOS ANGELES (Legal Newsline) - A lawsuit has been filed against Yelp by a group of reviewers claiming that they are unpaid writers who are "performing vital work that inures to the benefit of Yelp's various business enterprises."
Dr. Allen Panzer, Amy Sayers, Lily Jeung and Darren Walchesky were Yelp reviewers who were unlawfully misclassified as non-wage-paid employees, according to a complaint filed Oct. 22 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
The plaintiffs claim they, and other class members, performed their duties relating to the creation and promotion of content on behalf of Yelp, including writing, researching, editing, lodging review, upgrading prior reviews and generally promoting the site.
The plaintiffs were "an indispensable and integral part of the success of the defendant's business," the complaint states.
The plaintiffs claim Yelp's business model is predicated entirely on the exploitation of the plaintiffs' work product in order for the company and its owners to earn approximately $220 million annually.
"Its success is dependent upon the efforts of hordes of non-wage-paid reviewers and its ability to use those reviews as ready-made advertising-content to advertise businesses on their websites," according to the suit.
The plaintiffs claim Yelp's enormous growth and preeminence as a publisher are directly attributable to its low operating costs, made possibly by not paying wages to an entire class of workers, thereby also sidestepping payment of taxes and other societal contributions.
Yelp has devised a system of cult-like rewards and disciplines to motivate its non-wage-paid writers to labor without wages or expense reimbursement, in violation of equitable principles and the Fair Labor Standards Act, by offering rewards such as trinkets, badges, titles, praise, social promotion, free liquor, free food and free promotional Yelp attire, according to the suit.
The plaintiffs claim the defendant has exercised its right to fire any worker at anytime, with or without cause, with or without warning and with or without explanation or offering any recourse or formal appeal rights.
At least two named plaintiffs, and numerous other similarly situated persons, were actually fired by Yelp, having their badges and licenses revoked; their status and reputation sanctimoniously stripped away; and their extensive work product deleted from the systems with no recourse or ability to recover it, according to the suit.
One plaintiff stated: "My situation is a little different. I left a negative review on Yelp regarding one of their advertisers. Not only was my review removed, but I also received an e-mail canceling my Yelp account and stating that I could no longer write reviews or get access to any that I had written. I was fired by Yelp for supposedly breaking one of their rules, which I didn't," the complaint states.
The plaintiffs are seeking unpaid wages, reimbursement of expenditures, liquidated damages and statutory damages with pre- and post-judgment interest. They are being represented by Randy Rosenblatt of the Yelp Class Action Law Firm.
Yelp Inc. is being represented by Angeli C. Aragon and James C. Potepan of LeClairRyan LLP; Mark Goldowitz of the California Anti-Slapp Project; and Aaron Schur of Yelp Inc.
The case has been assigned to District Judge Dean D. Pregerson.
A hearing on a motion to dismiss accusations of violating the FLSA and to strike class action allegations has been set for Jan. 27.
Yelp recently said it plans to lobby Congress for patent reform and protections against abusive lawsuits for online reviewers. In 2013, it hired Washington lobbyist Laurent Crenshaw.
In 2009 and 2010, several class action lawsuits were filed against Yelp after business owners claimed it deleted positive reviews about their businesses after they refused to purchase advertisements on the website.
By 2011, nearly all of the lawsuits had been dismissed from court.
Rosenblatt could not be reached for comment.
U.S. District Court for the Central District of California case number: 2:13-cv-07805
From Legal Newsline: Kyla Asbury can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.