Obedience School Sues Yelper For $65K Over Negative Review

Note: Not the actual dog involved in this lawsuit. (photo: colonelchi)

Note: Not the actual dog involved in this lawsuit. (photo: colonelchi)

A few months ago, a Virginia woman began taking her dog to obedience class, and when the training wasn’t what she expected, she requested a pro-rated refund and wrote a negative review of the school on Yelp. Now she’s facing a $65,000 defamation lawsuit.

The Washington Post reports on this lawsuit, the latest in a string of legal actions filed by businesses against customers who vent on Yelp and other online review platforms.

In this case, the customer says she was expecting that the $175 training program would help her socialize her puppy so that it possibly be used as a therapy dog. However, she claims that the conditions of the school were not conducive to this goal so she requested a partial refund.

“In a nutshell, the services delivered were not as advertised and the owner refused a refund,” she wrote in her Yelp review, which has since been removed from the site.

But in the lawsuit, the school’s owner claims that she communicated the training conditions with the customer in e-mails before classes even started. She also says that the customer agreed to a no-refund clause.

She tells the Post that she offered other non-refund options to the customer, like a credit for a future class, but to no avail.

The owner explains that, as a small business, the school depends on word-of-mouth from online review sites to reach new customers and that this customer’s negative review “had a significant impact.”

The customer contends that the lawsuit and others like it are an attempt to stifle consumers’ First Amendment protections.

“People should be free to express their feelings about their service providers,” she tells the Post. “Companies using the legal system to silence their critics has a chilling effect on First Amendment rights.”

The customer contends that the school’s lawsuit is what’s known as a SLAPP complaint — a “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” wherein the plaintiff sues with the intent of quieting a defendant who can’t afford to fight back in court. Several states have anti-SLAPP statutes that allow for a judge to review the merits of a complaint and quickly dismiss any frivolous allegations that are only intended to stifle free speech.

The obedience school lawsuit is just one of several recent complaints filed by businesses against Yelp reviewers.

Because bad reviews can hurt business as long as they’re still available online, many plaintiff companies will seek a preliminary injunction asking to have the review taken down immediately pending the outcome of the case.

That was the issue with a few years back when a contractor — also in Virginia — sued a customer over allegedly libelous remarks made in her Yelp review, and asked the court to have the review taken down in advance of the trial. Initially, the judge tried to compel the defendant to edit a portion of the review, but she appealed as the edits in question presuppose that what she wrote was defamatory without the case ever going to trial.

That would be a violation of the rule against prior restraints, she argued, and in 2013 the Virginia Supreme Court agreed.

What sets both of the above cases apart from most Yelp-related lawsuits is that there was no question of who wrote the reviews involved.

Many lawsuits filed by businesses against Yelp reviewers done with temporary “John Doe” defendants because the businesses only have the Yelp user names to go on, and Yelp is understandably reluctant to hand over information about users.

Staying in Virginia, there has been an ongoing battle between Yelp and a carpet cleaner trying to force the site to reveal the names of certain reviewers. In early 2014, the trial court ordered Yelp to comply with a subpoena and make the information available to the plaintiff, but last fall Yelp appealed to the state’s highest court, which is expected to issue a ruling soon.

More recently, Yelp fought a subpoena in a lawsuit filed by a Texas real estate firm looking for the real name of a reviewer whose Yelp writeup was allegedly libelous.

Some businesses have tried bizarre, highly questionable routes to short-circuit negative reviews before they ever get published, like dentists and other medical professionals who include clauses in their contracts claiming they actually own the copyright to anything written about their business online.

An apartment complex in Florida also tried to claim copyright on every word and image posted about tenants’ properties — until it was brought to the attention of the media and suddenly the management company disavowed its own policy.

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