Petsitter Loses $1 Million Lawsuit Over Negative Yelp Review

Image courtesy of colonelchi

The six-month saga of the Texas petsitter who sued a customer for up to $1 million in damages over a negative Yelp review appears to have come to an end, with a judge agreeing to dismiss the case that made national headlines.

Just to backtrack, in case you’ve somehow had more important things to read about than petsitter-related litigation in the Lone Star State.

A couple in Plano, TX, hired a local petsitting company to look after their dogs and fish while they were on vacation. The customers weren’t terribly thrilled about the quality of service they received and shared their feedback publicly on Yelp in Oct. 2015.

The petsitting company not only responded to that write-up, but followed it with a cease-and-desist notice directing the customers to remove their review. When they did not take their Yelp post down, the petsitter filed a lawsuit in justice of the peace court for around $6,700, accusing the couple of violating a non-disparagement clause in the petsitter’s customer agreement.

Non-disparagement clauses are questionably legal conditions inserted into contracts and agreements that try to prohibit consumers from freely expressing their opinion on a transaction. California recently outlawed such clauses and a bipartisan bill that would make them illegal nationwide is waiting for Congress to return for a vote.

After the initial lawsuit made national headlines, the petsitter dropped that complaint and re-filed their case in a state district court, expanding on the allegations to include defamation and upping the damage request to as much as $1 million.

By this point, the case had attracted the attention of advocates for consumers and free expression. Attorney Paul Alan Levy from Public Citizen took on the task of asking the court to dismiss the case, arguing that the petsitter’s complaint is a frivolous SLAPP. That’s a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”; in other words, a lawsuit filed in the hopes of getting the defendant to shut up.

The Texas Citizens Participation Act is an example of a so-called “anti-SLAPP” statute, allowing the defendants in cases involving issues of speech to seek a dismissal if the plaintiff can’t “establish by clear and specific evidence a prima facie case for each essential element of the claim in question.”

READ MORE ABOUT SLAPPs & ANTI-SLAPP STATUTES

The judge heard from all parties involved in this mess in late July and today issued an order [PDF] dismissing the petsitter’s lawsuit.

In accordance with the Texas anti-SLAPP law, the defendants are also now entitled to recover court costs and reasonable and necessary attorney fees from the petsitter.

Levy says that by “seeking to silence negative criticism,” the petsitters may have ended up risking the future of their entire company.

“Not only did the company lose business when customers were disgusted over the non-disparagement lawsuit, it now is responsible to pay attorney fees and sanctions,” he explains.

In a statement, the couple expressed their relief and gratitude regarding today’s ruling.

“We should all have the opportunity to express our opinions without the fear of a lawsuit,” reads the statement. “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.”

In response to the petsitter story and other dubious lawsuits filed against Yelp users, the reviews site recently began publicly flagging certain companies that were believed to be making “questionable legal threats” over online reviews.

“Consumers don’t necessarily know that these threats are sometimes empty or meritless (and often both!), so the threat of legal action is enough to scare them into silence,” wrote Yelp Sr. VP Vince Sollitto earlier this summer. “We don’t think that’s right.”