Judge Throws Out Yelp Negative Review Lawsuit
A Texas judge has thrown out a $1 million lawsuit brought by Dallas pet-sitting company, Prestigious Pets, that sued a couple for giving it a 1-star Yelp review.
In October 2015, the Duchouquettes hired Prestigious Pets to watch their two dogs and one fish while they were on vacation. Michelle Duchouquette was dissatisfied with her experience and wrote a one-star review on Yelp. In her review, Michelle indicated that she didn’t like that she could not reach the pet sitter directly and that the fish water appeared cloudy, which suggested that the fish had been overfed.
The review at issue stated, “The one star is for potentially harming my fish, otherwise it would have been two stars. We have a camera on the bowl and we watched the water go from clear to cloudy. There was a layer of food on the bottom from way too much being put in it. Even if you don't have fish, you should be able to see the change in the bowl and stop putting in food. Better yet, ask us how much to feed if you are unsure.”
Prestigious Pets filed a small claims lawsuit against the Duchouquettes, arguing that the review was defamatory and was a violation of the non-disparagement clause in their contract. The Duchouquettes filed an anti-SLAPP motion, arguing that the lawsuit was an attempt to restrict their free speech and that it lacked a sound legal or factual basis. Prestigious Pets dismissed its small claims lawsuit and sued in district court, arguing that the media attention had hurt the company’s business. Prestigious Pets sued for $1 million.
Public Citizen, a public interest group, took the Duchouquettes case and filed an appeal from the implicit denial of the anti-SLAPP motion in small claims court and a new anti-SLAPP motion in district court. The Public Citizen lead attorney, Paul Alan Levy, commented, “This suit is another case where companies are using non-disparagement clauses to silence customers from sharing their experiences… The First Amendment protects the Duchouquettes’ right to give their opinion about the services they received and about the unfairness of the contract provision. The case should be dismissed.”
Judge Jim Jordan of the 160th District Court of Dallas County dismissed the case with prejudice. Judge Jordan also ordered Prestigious Pets to pay the Duchouquettes’ court costs and attorneys’ fees and “sanctions against the Plaintiffs sufficient to deter them from bringing similar actions.”
Reaction to Ruling
Michelle Duchouquette released a statement saying, “I am thankful to have a ruling that supports our right to free speech. We should all have the opportunity to express our opinions without the fear of a lawsuit… We are so grateful for the attorneys who have supported us through the case. It took lots of hours and many smart minds spending too much time talking about Gordy the betta fish. Thank goodness they did not lose sight of the real issue: the threats posed by non-disparagement clauses to our right to free speech.”