Company gets boost as it seeks to sue anonymous critics

By David Hutton | Aug 8, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) – A business services company has received a favorable ruling in its attempt to find out the identities of anonymous users who criticized it on the website Glassdoor.

The Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District Division Four on July 19 overturned a lower court’s ruling that denied the motion to compel Glassdoor to give the identities of “anonymous” posters. 

ZL Technologies Inc. had appealed a Marin County Superior Court order and judgment dismissing its complaint with prejudice for failing to serve the defendants in the case and from an order denying its motion to compel compliance with a subpoena it served on Glassdoor Inc.

ZL is a California corporation that provides email archiving, eDiscovery and compliance software and support to businesses throughout the country. Glassdoor operates a website for job seekers on which people may anonymously post information and express opinions regarding current or past employers.

From September 2010 to June 2012, individuals who presented themselves as current or former ZL employees posted seven anonymous reviews on Glassdoor‘s website, criticizing the company’s management and work environment, the opinion states.

On Aug. 29, 2012, ZL filed a complaint against the individuals who posted the critical reviews. The complaint stated causes of action for libel and online impersonation if any of the defendants were found not to be a ZL employee.

The following month, ZL served a subpoena on Glassdoor, requesting records identifying and providing contact information for the defendants. It then filed a motion to compel Glassdoor to comply with the subpoena.

The trial court issued a tentative ruling denying the motion to compel, maintaining that the defendants had a First Amendment right to remain anonymous.

The trial court reasoned that the defendants had a First Amendment right to remain anonymous, their critical reviews of ZL were "'similar to that written on bathroom walls - anonymous, angry, opinionated and not very reliable' and it was 'unclear' whether ZL, as defendants’ former employer, might have alternatives for discovering their identities," the opinion states.

The appeals court maintained the case "presents a conflict between a plaintiff‘s right to employ the judicial process to discover the identity of an allegedly libelous speaker and the speaker's First Amendment right to remain anonymous."

The appeals court pointed out that neither the United States nor the state Supreme Court has established a standard for resolving this conflict.

Citing Krinsky v. Doe, the appeals court pointed out that it "agreed with courts that have compelled the plaintiff to make a prima facie showing of the elements of libel' to obtain compulsory disclosure of a defendant‘s identity.

The appeals court also rejected Glassdoor’s position that its website contained numerous reviews of ZL, both positive and negative, would indicate to a reasonable reader that ZL‘s review page was simply a forum for former employees to share conflicting opinions about the company.

While Glassdoor did invite former employees to share content that naturally would include opinions, for example, by rating companies on various topics, it also touted itself as a source of detailed information users might need to make career decisions. A reader would reasonably anticipate this information might include facts, the court ruled.

Moreover, the volume or content of Glassdoor‘s ZL review page didn’t suggest an ongoing, free-wheeling and highly animated exchange among reviewers, as apparently was true in the cases Glassdoor cites, the court ruled.

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