Court Orders Yelp to Remove Defamatory Reviews
A California Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lower court's order requiring Yelp to remove three reviews that were found to be defamatory.
The Case of the Unhappy Client
The case involves a law firm with an unhappy client.
Ava Bird contacted Dawn Hasssell, of the Hassell Law Group, about a personal injury she'd sustained. On August 20, 2012, Bird signed an attorney-client fee agreement. However, on September 13 Hassell withdrew from representing Bird because she had trouble communicating with her and because Bird expressed dissatisfaction with the firm.
During the 25-day period of representation, Hassell had two communications with Allstate insurance about Bird's injuries and notified Bird about these communications via email. Hassell also had one in-person meeting with Bird and sent her several dozen emails.
When Hassell withdrew from the case, Bird still had 21 months before the expiration of the relevant statute of limitations, and hadn't lost any rights or claims relevant to her injury.
The Bad Review
In January of 2013, Bird published a negative review of Hassell on Yelp.com.
The review said, among other things:
the hassell law group didn[’]t ever speak with the insurance company either, neglecting their said responsibilities and not living up to their own legal contract! nor did they bother to communicate with me, the client or the insurance company AT ALL . . . .
Hassell tried and failed to reach Bird by phone. The attorney sent Bird an email “requesting she remove the factual inaccuracies and defamatory remarks from her Yelp.com written statement.”
In her email response, Bird, according to the court's decision,
made derogatory comments about Dawn Hassell’s legal skills, refused to remove the January 2013 review, and threatened to post an updated review and to have another review posted by someone else.
Shortly thereafter, according to Hassell, Bird or someone she asked posted another negative Yelp review about the firm. The review was signed with the initials "JD," and Hassell said she had never represented a client with those initials. A third negative review followed.
Hassell and her firm sued Bird for defamation, trade libel, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Bird failed to show up for a hearing and the court awarded damages and costs against her totaling $557,918.75. The court also ordered Bird to remove her defamatory reviews.
Yelp Says Nope
Hassell used the court order to try to get Yelp to remove the reviews. Yelp's attorney objected, saying:
- Yelp wasn't a party to the defamation case.
- Yelp was immune from liability for publishing the reviews under the Communications Decency Act (CDA).
- Hassell had failed to properly serve Bird or prove the defamation claims.
Yelp, even though it wasn't a party to the defamation case, tried to have the judgement in that case set aside. Its motion was denied and Yelp appealed.
The Court of Appeal held that Yelp was unable to show that the CDA or any other law prevented the lower court from ordering Yelp to remove the defamatory reviews.
The case has been sent back to the lower court for further proceedings narrowing the terms of the removal order.
As of today those negative reviews are still there.
- Someone who posts negative reviews that are actually defamatory (i.e., untrue) can be successfully sued.
- A website, such as Yelp, that posts such reviews can be required to take them down — but this can take years and a lot of effort to accomplish.
(Photo Credit: "Yelp Logo" by is licensed under Public Domain)