California Supreme Court To Review Yelp’s Case For Not Removing Allegedly Defamatory Reviews

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Two months after a California appeals court attempted to put an end to a years-long dispute between a lawyer and a former client she accused of posting defamatory reviews by ordering Yelp to take down the comments, the Supreme Court of California unanimously agreed to hear an appeal of the case.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Supreme Court’s decision will give Yelp a chance to defend itself and argue that the removal of the reviews would be a violation of free speech, potentially opening an avenue for businesses to have reviews they find distasteful removed.

Still, the review will likely take a year to review the case, meaning the nearly four-year long saga could continue to plod along and the allegedly defamatory reviews will remain online.

A spokesperson for Yelp, which argues that a judge’s order this summer to remove the reviews endangers free speech, tells the Chronicle that the latest development is welcome.

The company wasn’t party to the original lawsuit, so it never had a chance to make its case in court.

“We look forward to making our full arguments to the Court and explaining how the lower court’s decision is ripe for abuse, contradicts long-standing legal principles, and restricts the ability of websites to provide a balanced spectrum of views online,” Aaron Schur, a senior director of litigation for Yelp, said in a statement.

Yelp and other Internet companies tell the Chronicle that the case, as the ruling currently stands, has a potential to open the floodgates of businesses to have reviews they simply find distasteful removed.

Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, warned that the case could provide a playbook for such action: first, sue the reviewer; second, the reviewer doesn’t show up in court or drops out of the case; third, the business asks the court for an injunction to remove the review.

But not everyone is pleased with the high court’s decision, namely, the law firm trying to have the reviews, which were found by a judge to contain defamatory content, removed.

“The speech at issue here is not protected speech but speech adjudicated to be defamatory,” a lawyer representing the law firm says. “There are decades of jurisprudence finding that defamatory speech is not protected by the First Amendment.”

The case began back in 2012, when a woman hired a law firm to represent her in a personal injury claim. The relationship didn’t last long, and the client and lawyer parted ways.

However, the client subsequently posted a review on Yelp, giving the firm one out of five stars, and stating that the lawyer deserved even lower. She accused her former lawyer of “making a bad situation worse,” and failing to speak with both the client and insurance company because “her mom had a broken leg.”

The law firm asked the woman to remove the review, which it contends contained defamatory and false statements. In response, the woman refused to remove the Jan. 2013 review, and the law firm alleged that the woman — or possibly someone she knew — subsequently posted a second review in Feb. 2013, which the firm also said was defamatory and false.

The lawyers then sued the woman, accusing her of defamation, trade libel, false light invasion of privacy, and emotional distress.

In Jan. 2014, after the defendant failed to respond to the complaint or show up at court, the court awarded the law firm nearly $558,000 in damages and ordered Yelp to remove the reviews in question.

Yelp objected to the order, saying that the law firm had failed to actually prove that the reviews are defamatory. The site filed a motion to vacate the judgment, arguing that Yelp had standing to bring the motion as an “aggrieved party,” even though it was a nonparty in the lawsuit.

The court denied the motion in Sept. 2014, and Yelp appealed. In June 2016, a state appeals court once again came down in favor of removing the reviews.

That brings us to present day, where the California Supreme Court will now review the case.

California Supreme Court to hear Yelp free-speech case [San Francisco Chronicle]