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.

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.