You Are Not Without Remedies if Someone Defames Your Business

Fight Internet Defamation

I believe in freedom of speech. I fight for freedom of speech. I feel that I must tell you that up front because every time I report a victory in court on a defamation action, I inevitably get some push back, as though I am preventing someone from speaking their mind. Give me a few minutes to explain this case and you’ll see that freedom of speech is served by the fight against false speech.

In this case, my clients were a business (a corporation) and the individual who owns that business. The defendant was starting a business and traveled to an overseas company owned by my client (we’ll call that the "foreign company") and entered into a contract for the creation of some custom software.

And that is where the divergence in the two versions of the story begins. My clients assert (and proved at trial) that the software was fully functional and delivered on time by the foreign company. For reasons not important to the story, the defendant was unable to implement the software and blamed the failure of his start-up business on the software.

Let’s pause there. As I told the jury, if the defendant had elected to go onto Yelp or any other site and post a TRUTHFUL review of my client's business, no matter how harsh and critical, there would have been no action. Indeed, I said that if this was a case where a business was trying to silence a critic for an honest review, then I would have been sitting at defendant’s table in the courtroom defending him.

But that is not what defendant did.

This is the scenario that I see over and over in defamation cases. Someone becomes unhappy with a business or individual, and decides to criticize them on-line. It might even begin with a pure motive – just putting out the word to the public to avoid a business that did not satisfy the customer. But as the person types the words, he or she decides it’s just not stinging enough. In this case, the defendant must have felt that a legitimate review stating that in his opinion the software did not work as promised or was not delivered on time just wasn't hurtful enough. So the reviewer begins to embellish (which is a polite way of saying he lies).

In this case, the defendant took to the Internet and created blog posts about my clients on his own blog, and sent an email to my clients’ customers. Instead of saying the software was late, which is what he claimed at trial, he falsely claimed that the Plaintiffs had taken his money and never delivered anything. Late delivery would have been a breach of contract, but by claiming my clients never delivered anything, that turned it into fraud.

But that wasn’t enough.

He added the false statement that my clients had failed to pay vendors "hundreds of thousands of dollars."

No, still not damaging enough.

He falsely claimed that my client had "funneled work" to his own companies while employed by another company.

Better, but someone might still do business with them.

So he added the false statement, "They are swindlers of the highest kind and have milked many of their clients of money and time."

That should do it.

At his deposition and at trial, the defendant could not show that the software was late, he could not identify any work that was "funneled" away from my client’s former employer, he could not name one vendor who was not paid (or indeed even name a vendor), and he could not name a single client who was "milked of money and time."

Today, an Orange County jury, known for being very conservative with damage awards, awarded $1.5 million jointly and individually to both of my clients for the damage to their reputations.

The jurors got it. Afterwards, some of them expressed their concerns that they do not want people constrained from being critical on the Internet, but they all agreed that false speech like this does nothing to promote the "marketplace of ideas" that we all hold so dear. Even after spending so much time with this case, I still don’t know why defendant was so vicious toward my clients, but the jury agreed with me that a claim of free speech cannot be used as a defense by someone who only sought to destroy another with lies.

Internet Defamation Requires a Fast Investigation

Internet Defamation requires a quick responseWe were just able to help a client dodge a bullet, and the fact pattern provides a cautionary tale for all.

If you or your business is the victim of Internet defamation by an anonymous poster, and you decide to go after that person, you have many hoops to jump through to get the necessary information. Say you are being trashed on WeTrashPeople.com by an unknown person. (I just made up that name, but I’m sure someone will snatch up the URL.) Unless the site is one of the few that displays the IP address of the poster, you may have to go through three rounds of subpoenas to work your way back to the Internet Service Provider (ISP), such as Cox, Time Warner, or whomever. Complicating things, most ISPs use dynamic IP addresses. In other words, every IP address is used by different subscribers at different times. It is not enough just to know the IP address of the person who posted the lies about you, you must find out who that address was assigned to at the precise time and date the comment was posted.

And that is why you must move quickly. The ISPs all have their own policies on how long they retain that information. If you wait six months to retain counsel to go after the person who is defaming you, by the time the attorney works through the subpoena process, the essential information may be gone.

It appeared that was going to be the case with our client, who waited too long before contacting us. We traced the information all the way back to the ISP, who responded to our subpoena by stating that the information was not retained. With some additional pressing by us, the ISP revised its position and coughed up the information, but that could have been the end of the road for the client’s action.

Bottom line:  If you are the victim of defamation, and you think you want to pursue an action, move quickly. Filing an action does not mean you are committing yourself to going to court. More often than not, once we have identified the defamer, an informal resolution can be reached. On multiple occasions we have discovered that the defamer is a competing business who is posting false reviews. They are more than willing to remove the comments once they have been exposed to the light.

Britain's ASA Announces that On-Line Reviews May Not be Trustworthy

 

Internet Poisoning Internet Defamation

I found a news squib I came across today to be particularly interesting because it follows the precise example I often use to explain the difference between opinion and a statement of fact, and it shows how one country is dealing with reviews posted for extortionist purposes.

First, the example. If you eat at a restaurant and later post a review that says the food tasted like poison, you are probably safe from a claim for defamation. Most would agree that is mere hyperbole; that you are offering your opinion that the food tasted bad, not that you actually meant it contained poison.

On the other hand, if you say that the food did, indeed, poison you, then you’d better be able to back it up with hard evidence. The first cannot be measured – what you think poison tastes like is your opinion. The second statement can be tested, because we can see if the food that day could have lead to food poisoning.

Now to the real life application. It seems that one of the latest fads in Internet extortion is for a reviewer to post a review claiming that he suffered food poisoning at a restaurant. The extortionist then offers to accept, say, $5,000 for the pain and suffering of the poisoning and, oh, incidentally, offers to take down the terrible review as well. Other times the offer to remove the post never comes, because the false allegation of food poisoning is from a competitor.

This bogus review scam has become so rampant in Great Britain that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has informed TripAdvisor that it can no longer claim or even imply that its on-line restaurant and hotel reviews can be trusted. The news item added that it is not always the case the reviewer knows he or she is lying. When one suffers legitimate food poisoning, they almost always blame the last place they ate, not realizing that the incubation period for a good case of food poisoning is usually one or two days, and can take as long as a week. In most cases, it is impossible to know which restaurant is responsible for the poisoning except by finding a common restaurant among a group of victims.

If Someone is Offering a Walk-Away, Listen

Perhaps because the adrenaline and endorphins flow during a courtroom battle, I become very thoughtful in the calm that follows. I won a small but satisfying court victory today in an Internet defamation case, and it made me realize how much the process mirrors a scene from a movie I just saw.

The movie was Taken, which I thought was very good. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably saw the scene to which I refer since it was shown in the trailers. The main character, who we come to learn is some sort of retired Über-spy, is on the phone with his teenage daughter when she is kidnaped. He hears the bad guy pick up the phone, and he calmly gives the following speech:

I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know what you want.
If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money.
But what I do have are a very particular set of skills;
skills I have acquired over a very long career.
Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.
If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it.
But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you
.

Most every Internet defamation case I handle starts with such a moment. Not nearly so dramatic, of course, and there are no deaths involved if the defendant doesn’t listen to me, but the concept of a choice is the same.

Most of my defamation clients aren’t seeking money initially; they just want the bad guy to stop defaming them. My marching orders are usually just to get the person to take down the comments. So I write to the bad guy, explaining that this does not need to go any further. He strayed from the path and said and did some things he shouldn’t have, but if he just takes down the posts and walks away, “that will be the end of it.”

That is the moment in time. I am affording the prospective defendant the opportunity to avoid sending his life, or at the very least his finances, in a bad direction. I am less of an advocate and more of a care giver, just trying to convince the patient to stop engaging in self-destructive behavior. But he makes the ultimate decision whether to accept that help, or to continue on his path.

In Taken, the kidnapper could not help himself and responded by saying, “good luck.” He did not take the skill set seriously enough, thinking he would be impossible to find. Today’s defendant also did not take the skill set seriously enough, thinking that since he had hidden his identity and lived across the country we would never find or pursue him. He was one of a few on-line competitors with my client, and had engaged in some trash-talking that escalated into defamatory comments about my client’s business practices. All he had to do was take down the false statements and walk away and that would have been the end of it. He refused, and today a judge ordered him to take down the false statements, and to pay my client over $200,000.  I suspect, if he had it to do over again, he'd take the walk-away.

Lesson for all businesses: Pick your battles. If you want to take on a plaintiff that you feel is trying to shake you down, then I’m with you one hundred percent. But don’t get into a court battle just to prove who has the bigger . . . lawyer.  The defendant in today’s case had no moral high ground.  He knew what he was saying about my client was untrue, so why on earth wouldn’t he take the opportunity to walk away?  As a famous philosopher once sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away and know when to run.”

Biegel v. Norberg -- Chilling On-Line Reviews?

Yelp is based in San Francisco and is viewed there as a favored son for some reason. When someone dares to challenge Yelp or its postings, many of our Northern California neighbors get exercised. I received several calls from media outlets over the past couple of days, seeking comment on the case of Steven Biegel v. Christopher Norberg, an Internet defamation case involving Yelp.com.

The simple facts are these. Norberg was treated by Biegel, a Chiropractor. Norberg was told the treatment would cost a certain amount if he was paying for it out of his own pocket, but his insurance company was allegedly billed at a much higher rate. Although a common practice, since health care providers and insurance companies are free to enter into whatever arrangements they please, this apparently bothered Norberg, so he posted a review on Yelp.com, giving Biegel just one star and questioning the honesty of his billing practices. When Biegel complained about the review, Norberg replaced it with a new entry, accusing Biegel of attempting to harass him into silence. Biegel then responded by suing Norberg for defamation. The trial is set for March 2009.

Note that Yelp is not being sued, only the person that actually posted the allegedly defamatory statements. Nonetheless, many are bothered by such a lawsuit, concerned that it will have a chilling effect on the willingness of people to post their views on sites such as Yelp.com and Citysearch.com. Some have suggested to me that just as the website is immune from liability for anything said by visitors, that immunity should be extended to the visitors as well.

I fought at the forefront of cases involving the Communications Decency Act, which shields website operators from liability for the comments of others, because that limitation makes infinite sense. We would not have open forums and dialog on the Internet if the website operators had to fact check every comment posted.

But on the issue of whether those who post the comments should be protected, I find myself cast as the curmudgeon, seeking to stifle freedom of speech. Here is how the San Francisco Chronicle quoted me:

“Sites that are seemingly well intended are turning into wastelands of defamatory and unspecified allegations,” said Aaron Morris, a partner with Morris & Stone LLP in Orange County who is not involved in the case. “There needs to be some sort of blowback against unfettered speech. People should be able to go on and say, ‘That’s not a true statement about me, and I need to be able to attack this.’ “

If everyone played nice, review sites would not be a problem. But they don’t. Suits against those who post defamatory statements won’t chill free speech, but they will chill defamatory speech, and that’s a good thing. You see, those seemingly helpful reviews you are reading on line are being gamed big time, and there must be a means to fight back. I receive calls every day from businesses that are being falsely trashed by competitors. In one case it was discovered that a company had employed a full time defamer (my designation, not theirs), whose job was to spend all day every day, creating false identities in order to post false reviews, blogs and websites about competitors. I’d love to say that it will all come out in the wash --  that a good business will receive enough good reviews to override the false statements -- but that is not the case. Whereas a legitimate reviewer will post their remarks and go about their business, these professional defamers utilize SEO methods to move the defamatory blogs and websites to the top of the heap.  Honest reviews don’t stand a chance against the bogus ones.

So what about the Norbergs of the world, who just want to post their comments without fear of legal action? Yes, the target of the criticism can file an action, but he will pay a heavy price if the posting was not defamatory. The poster can first respond with a simple anti-SLAPP motion, which stops everything including discovery and allows the court to determine whether the speech was protected and whether the plaintiff has a chance of prevailing. If the motion is granted, the plaintiff pays all of the poster’s attorney fees. He’ll then come to me, and we’ll file a SLAPP BACK action, suing the prior plaintiff for malicious prosecution, winning the poster millions of dollars (individual results may vary). Now who is chilled?

[Update]  After all the attention this case received, the ending, like so many cases, was rather anti-climatic. The parties settled and the offending post was replaced by a new conciliatory post by Norberg.

Jury Awards $11.3 Million in Internet Defamation Case

It’s amazing what you can do when the defendant doesn’t show up at trial.  With no opposition at trial, the plaintiff in an Internet defamation case convinced a South Florida jury to award her a record $11.3 million in damages. 

Sue Scheff of Weston, Fla., sued Carey Bock of Mandeville, La., in December 2003 over the messages posted calling her a crook, a con artist and a fraud, USA Today reported Wednesday. The dispute was centered on a referral business Scheff runs that helps parents of troubled children find appropriate schools, the newspaper said. After their transaction involving Bock’s two sons, Bock began posting the messages, the jury was told.

Bock was unable to pay an attorney and did not attend the Broward County, Fla., trial or enter a defense, and Scheff said she doubted she’d see any money at all.

Defamation and On-Line Reviews

A Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation ("SLAPP") is a lawsuit or a threat of lawsuit that is intended to intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition. Winning the lawsuit is not necessarily the intent of the person filing the SLAPP. The plaintiff's goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism. A SLAPP may also intimidate others from participating in the debate.

To guard against the use of lawsuits designed to quash free speech, California passed an anti-SLAPP statute. Code of Civil Procedure Section 425.16 provides a quick procedure a defendant can use to stop a SLAPP suit. Rather than goes through a year of costly litigation, a defendant can bring a simple motion to strike the complaint. The court then decides whether the speech in question is protected free speech. Claims stemming from these acts are subject to a special motion to strike unless the trial court determines that the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the merits. (§ 425.16, subd. (b)(1).)

Section 425.16 applies to causes of action "against a person arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person's right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue." (§ 425.16, subd. (b)(1).) Such acts include: "(1) any written or oral statement or writing made before a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law; (2) any written or oral statement or writing made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive, or judicial body, or any other official proceeding authorized by law; (3) any written or oral statement or writing made in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest; (4) or any other conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of petition or the constitutional right of free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest." ( Id., subd. (e).)

But note that the section requires a "public issue." Many parties and judges forget this element, as illustrated by the recent, unreported decision, European Spa, Inc. v. Kerber, decided by the First District Court of Appeal on August 28, 2008.

In European Spa, a Yahoo.com user posted a review of the Spa, which stated: "My first impression was its tacky décor. Then I encountered an extremely rude European gentlemen, I believe this is the owner. From what I could see, the employees are miserable and tired. When I went into the steam room I saw mildew and brown spots on the walls.... I could not even sit in there. I went for my massage, and that was ok. But the room had a strange smell and the blankets were dingy. It was also very cold. I guess the owner does not put on the heat. There is just too much to go on about. I will never go there again, and I will make sure I will tell as many people as I can about the horrible experience that I had."

Another review, posted on Yelp.com, stated: "One star is even too much for this place. First of all, when I walked in there it looked like selling a whole bunch of useless things you'll wind up selling at a garage sale. The service was horrible. I had this creepy old European man helping me and he was just outright rude. The guy was acting as if he was doing me a favor by letting me come to his spa.... And what was with the 18 percent service charge? ? ? It's questionable that the therapists or the providers ever receive it. My massage was ok and that was the only highlight of this.... And their sauna and steam room ... was really disgusting. Their lounge are was just full of tacky decorations as what I've heard they've been around for a long time, and I really don't understand why.... I would never come back and much would rather go to the spa at my gym."

The owners of the spa were convinced that these posts came from a former employee that had started her own competing spa, not from customers. (As it turned out they were right, but they suspected the wrong employee.) They sued the former employee, who brought an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming that whether or not she was the person who had made the posts, they were protected free speech.

Resolving the merits of an anti-SLAPP motion requires a two-part analysis, concentrating initially on whether the challenged cause of action arises from protected activity within the meaning of the statute and, if so, proceeding next to whether the plaintiff can establish a probability of prevailing on the merits. (Overstock.Com, Inc. v. Gradient Analytics, Inc. (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 688, 699.)

Several years ago the court in Rivero v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO (2003) 105 Cal.App.4th 913, 924 (Rivero) made inroads into articulating the boundaries of what constitutes a "public issue" or issue of "public interest" as those terms are used in section 425.16, subdivision (e). Surveying the pertinent case law, the Rivero court identified three categories of statements that fit the bill: (1) the subject of the statement concerned a person or entity in the public eye; (2) the statement or activity involved conduct that could directly affect large numbers of people beyond the direct participants; or (3) the statement or activity concerned a topic of widespread public interest.

The court in Weinberg v. Feisel (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th 1122, 1132 also addressed the issue, delineating some attributes of an issue which would render it one of public, rather than merely private, interest: "First, ‘public interest’ does not equate with mere curiosity. Second, a matter of public interest should be something of concern to a substantial number of people. Thus, a matter of concern to the speaker and a relative small, specific audience is not a matter of public interest. Third, there should be some degree of closeness between the challenged statements and the asserted public interest; the assertion of a broad and amorphous public interest is not sufficient. Fourth, the focus of the speaker's conduct should be the public interest rather than a mere effort ‘to gather ammunition for another round of [private] controversy....’ Finally, ... [a] person cannot turn otherwise private information into a matter of public interest simply by communicating it to a large number of persons."

In European Spa, the court concluded defendant was wrong in concluding that reviews posted on the Internet are subject to an anti-SLAPP motion, because they did not meet the"public interest" element. The reviews did not connect with or encourage any larger discussion or public debate of general societal or consumer issues related to the spa industry. For example in Gilbert v. Sykes (2007) 147 Cal.App.4th 13, a patient/consumer created a Web site that related the consumer's experiences with plastic surgery performed by a prominent, widely known plastic surgeon, as well as information and advice for those considering plastic surgery. As the reviewing court explained, these statements concerned a matter of public interest within the meaning of section 425.16. The assertions that a high profile surgeon produced nightmare results that prompted extensive revision surgery contributed toward public discussion about the risks and benefits of plastic surgery in general. Equally important, the Web site was not limited to attacking the plastic surgeon, but contained advice, information and other features, including tips on choosing a plastic surgeon, that contributed to the general debate over the pros and cons of undertaking cosmetic surgery. (Gilbert v. Sykes, supra, at pp. 23-24.) The (fraudulent) spa reviews did not rise to that level, and the trial court denied the anti-SLAPP motion on that basis.

The same week, the Second District Court of Appeal came to a different conclusion in the unpublished decision of Kim v. IAC/InterActive Corp. There, a review about a dentist was posted on Citysearch, which read:

"Don't go there-worse dentist in Glendale

I do not recommend Dr. Kim. I randomly selected him as my dentist but after my initial visit, I was very discouraged. He made it very clear that he did not like HMO patients (which I was). His attitude towards me was poor as if I was a second-class citizen. I waited 5 weeks to schedule an initial visit, and he made me wait another 6 weeks to schedule my first cleaning. "Because you're an HMO patient, we cannot schedule you at convenient times." He is also understaffed. His receptionist doubles as his dental assistant. She was quite unprofessional and made comments about my age and marital status when I turned in my patient information card. All in all, DO NOT use this dentist!"

The dentist filed a complaint and subpoenaed the records from Citysearch, and then filed an action against the poster, Citysearch.com and other defendants. The defendants filed an anti-SLAPP motion, which the trial court granted based entirely on the fact that the dentist was unlikely to prevail in his action.

The result was correct, but the reasoning was flawed. The statement did not cross the line into defamation or trade libel, and the action against Citysearch.com would never have survived under the Communications Decency Act, which shields Websites from liability for information posted by others. But the court never considered whether the post was a matter of public interest.

Subpoenas Don't Trigger Anti-Slapp

Plaintiff obtained a pre-filing discovery order in Ohio to aid in his effort to learn the identities of the anonymous individuals who had posted statements about him on the Internet that he believed were defamatory. Defendants, who we will refer to as the Does, are the anonymous individuals who posted those statements. When Google, the subject of Tendler's discovery order, refused to comply with Ohio subpoenas, Tendler filed a request for subpoenas in Santa Clara County Superior Court premised on the Ohio discovery order. The Does filed a motion to quash and a Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16 motion to strike (anti-SLAPP motion). The threat of having to pay defendants’ attorney fees was sufficient for him to withdraw his request for subpoenas. Nonetheless, the Does proceeded on their section 425.16 motion to strike.

The trial court granted the Does' anti-SLAPP motion to strike, and awarded them their attorney fees. The trial court concluded that a request for subpoenas was sufficient to trigger the anti-SLAPP procedure. The Court of Appeal disagreed, and concluded that a request for subpoenas does not fall within section 425.16, and therefore the trial court erred in granting the motion and in awarding attorney's fees.

This was another example of a trial court misusing the anti-SLAPP procedure to try to clear its trial docket. In a standard action, where defendant tries to strike the complaint by way of an anti-SLAPP motion, the trial court must afford reasonable discovery so that plaintiff can try to find sufficient evidence to create a prima facie case. If a plaintiff could be subjected to an anti-SLAPP motion from the mere request for discovery, that would greatly reduce his ability to defend his reputation.

Tendler v. jewishsurvivors.blogspot.com (2008) 164 Cal.App.4th 802