A Florida appeals court upheld a judgment of $350,000 in a lawsuit filed by a lawyer against her former client alleging defamation based on negative reviews of the lawyer posted on the internet by the former client. Blake v. Giustibelli, __ So.3d __ (Fla. 4th DCA, No. 4D14-3231, 1/6/2016), 2016 WL _______.

Florida Attorney Ann-Marie Giustibelli represented Copia Blake in a divorce from her husband, Peter Birzon.  After a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship, Blake and Birzon posted negative reviews regarding Giustibelli on various internet sites.  The reviews stated that Giustibelli charged Blake four times the amount of fees originally quoted, that she lacked integrity, and that she falsified a contract.  Alleging that the reviews were defamatory, Giustibelli sued Blake and Birzon for libel, breach of contract and attorney’s fees, alleging that Blake still owed her money related to the divorce representation.

At trial, both Blake and Birzon admitted to posting the negative reviews on various websites. In addition, Blake and Birzon both admitted at trial that Giustibelli had not charged Blake four times more than what was quoted in the agreement. The trial court ruled that Blake had agreed to pay Giustibelli the amount reflected on the parties’ written retainer agreement—$300 an hour. As a result, the court entered judgment in favor of Giustibelli and awarded punitive damages of $350,000.

Blake and Birzon appealed, contending that “their internet reviews constituted statements of opinion and thus were protected by the First Amendment and not actionable as defamation.”  The appeals court disagreed, and affirmed the trial court’s judgment. The appeals court ruled that

[A]n action for libel will lie for a ‘false and unprivileged publication by letter, or otherwise, which exposes a person to distrust, hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy or which causes such person to be avoided, or which has a tendency to injure such person in [their] office, occupation, business or employment.’ … Here, all the reviews contained allegations that Giustibelli lied to Blake regarding the attorney’s fee. Two of the reviews contained the allegation that Giustibelli falsified a contract. These are factual allegations, and the evidence showed they were false. [Citations Omitted]

The case is annexed here – Blake v. Giustibelli

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