A client who left a bad review on Yelp about a contractor she hired to work on her home is now being sued for defamation by the contractor, who says that she is dodging paying for repairs and waging a libelous campaign on the web against him.
The suit points to the increasing danger of saying anything actionable on the Internet.
Reviews Charge Theft, Etc.
Jane Perez hired her high school classmate Christopher Dietz to do some work on her home in Fairfax, Va. According to his complaint, his company, Dietz Development, completed the work, but then Perez wanted more work done and refused to pay.
(He actually sued her, but his suit was dismissed because he didn’t respond in time to her motion to dismiss.)
Perez posted several bad reviews of Dietz Development on Yelp and on angieslist.com, another review-based site.
In her reviews, she complained that the contractor damaged her home, tried to charge her for work not performed, lacked appropriate accreditation or licenses, trespassed on her property, and stole her jewelry.
Was the Consumer SLAPPed?
Lawsuits like Dietz’s are becoming more common, as the Internet has provided angry consumers with more opportunities to vent. Such suits, in their most aggressive form, can be considered “SLAPP suits” – Strategic Limitation Against Public Participation – which have been outlawed in 27 states and the District of Columbia because of concerns that they interfere with freedom of speech.
SLAPP suits are filed in order to interfere with someone’s effort to either get the government to intervene in a situation or bring information to the public on a matter of public importance, explains Jeffrey P. Hermes, the director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard’s Berkman centre for Internet & Society.
“A SLAPP lawsuit is a meritless lawsuit filed as an intimidation tactic,” says Hermes. “The intent is to deter an individual from exercising his or her rights by threatening them with the extensive investment of time and money necessary to defend against the suit.”
First Amendment Concerns
“SLAPPs present special First Amendment problems,” notes Evan Mascagni, a lawyer with the California Anti-SLAPP Project in Berkeley. “To end or prevent a SLAPP, those who speak out on issues of public interest frequently agree to muzzle themselves, apologise, or ‘correct’ statements.”
Is Dietz trying to prevent Perez from speaking about an issue of public concern or from trying to get the government to step in? Hard to say at this point. In addition to $750,000, he demanded that she remove her offending reviews and cease from making similar statements about his company.
The judge did give Dietz a preliminary injunction on Dec.5, telling Perez to remove the posts and stop making any more. In essence, says Mascagni, this means the judge ruled Dietz’s case was not a SLAPP.
Day in Court Still to Come
“Most SLAPP lawsuits involve claims that statements made by the defendant are false, and many statements that are the subject of SLAPP suits involve allegations of illegal activity,” adds Hermes. “Just because a plaintiff claims that a statement is false, that does not mean that it actually is false – the plaintiff must be able to prove falsity.”
Dietz will get his day in court, it seems. No trial date has been set, according to the Washington Post.
“This case was important because it is a reminder of the need for federal anti-SLAPP legislation, as Virginia does not have an anti-SLAPP law,” Mascagni says. “If we truly value our First Amendment rights and want to encourage critical and open dialogue about important issues, then what is desperately needed is federal legislation that would protect individuals’ rights to speak freely without fear of retaliation.”