SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) – The Supreme Court of California has overturned a San Francisco Superior Court ruling, saying Yelp Inc. doesn’t have to remove certain consumer reviews posted on its website.
The case involves defendant Ava Bird, who allegedly used Yelp to write a negative review about plaintiff Hassell Law Group after it agreed to represent her in a personal injury matter in 2012, according to the opinion.
David Evans, managing partner of California law firm Haight Brown & Bonesteel, said the court was divided on the case despite the final July 2 ruling.
“The most surprising part of the case was the disagreement,” Evans told Legal Newsline, “You had three justices that thought Yelp should prevail and the case should be reversed from the appellate court; you had three justices that dissented with the results for different reasons. Then you had the last and deciding justice who agreed with the result, but not with the reasoning of the three-person plurality.”
According to the opinion, Bird and the law firm entered into a representation agreement, but email exchanges and communication difficulties led Dawn Hassell, who owns Hassell Law Group, to conclude that Bird was unhappy with the firm’s performance, causing the Hassell Law Group to withdraw from representation.
On Jan. 28, 2013, a one-star (out of five) review of the Hassell Law Group appeared on Yelp, a website which provides a forum for reviews and ratings of businesses and other entities, according to the opinion.
The Supreme Court said the one-star review was posted by Yelp user “Birdzeye B,” who wrote that the business doesn’t even deserve one star and advised others to stay clear of the firm.
“Hassell believed Bird to be the author of this review, and sent her an email,” the opinion stated. “Hassell wrote Bird that ‘you are certainly free to write a review about your experience and provide constructive feedback. But slandering someone and intentionally trying to damage their business and reputation is illegal.’”
The court said another one-star review of the Hassell Law Group was posted on Feb. 6, 2013, and it was from the user "J.D." of Alameda.
On April 10, 2013, plaintiffs filed suit against Bird in San Francisco Superior Court, alleging that Bird wrote both of the reviews, that these reviews were libelous and that in posting the reviews, Bird cast plaintiffs in a false light and intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon Dawn Hassell, the opinion stated.
The plaintiffs requested for Bird to remove the reviews from Yelp.com, but Yelp was intentionally not named as a defendant, according to the opinion.
"Plaintiffs anticipated that if they added Yelp as a defendant and integrated the company into the action at that time, Yelp could respond by asserting immunity under section 230," the opinion said.
According to the Supreme Court, congress enacted section 230 “for two basic policy reasons: to promote the free exchange of information and ideas over the Internet and to encourage voluntary monitoring for offensive or obscene material.”
The Supreme Court added that section 230 states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Even though the plaintiffs didn't name Yelp as a defendant, the Supreme Court said "their action ultimately treats it as 'the publisher or speaker of . . . information provided by another information content provider.'”
"We must decide whether plaintiffs’ litigation strategy allows them to accomplish indirectly what Congress has clearly forbidden them to achieve directly," the opinion stated. "We believe the answer is no."
The Supreme Curt's ruling concluded that "in light of Congress’s designs with respect to section 230, the capacious language Congress adopted to effectuate its intent, and the consequences that could result if immunity were denied here, Yelp is entitled to immunity under the statute. Plaintiffs’ attempted end-run around section 230 fails."
Evans said it's important to protect websites like Yelp, but also necessary to consider the other side.
"Companies like Yelp obviously don't want to get sued every time a user posts a review somebody doesn't like," Evans said. "That's one of the reasons Congress enacted this provision that protects them from being classified as the author of these postings."
Evans added that it's a problem from the perspective of a medical professional or a legal professional because a client can bad mouth a professional in an extreme way on a website and it can be defamatory.