Reversing decisions of trial and appellate courts, a divided California Supreme Court ruled that judges can’t order Yelp Inc., the online ratings site, to remove unflattering, one-star reviews of a San Francisco lawyer and her law firm posted by a user of the Yelp website who was an angry former client of the law firm. The Court found that federal law shields internet service providers like Yelp from liability for statements posted by others. Hassell v. Bird, Docket No. S235968 (2018)

In August 2012, the Hassell Law Group, owned by attorney Dawn Hassell, agreed to represent Ava Bird in a personal injury matter. Communication difficulties developed soon thereafter. As a result, the Hassell Law Group withdrew from representation one month later, in September 2012.

Several months later, in January 2013, a one-star (out of five) review of the Hassell Law Group appeared on Yelp. The negative review was authored by Bird. In her post, Bird stated, among other things, as follows:

well, here is another business that doesn’t even deserve one star. basically, dawn hassell made a bad situation much worse for me…. STEER CLEAR OF THIS LAW FIRM! and research around to find a law firm with a proven track record of success, a good work ethic, competence and long term client satisfaction. there are many in the bay area and with some diligent smart interviewing, you can find a competent attorney, but this wont be one of them.

Hassell emailed Bird asking her to remove the negative Yelp review, but Bird refused. Shortly thereafter, in February 2013, another one-star review of the Hassell Law Group was posted on Yelp by Bird.

In April 2013, Hassell filed a lawsuit against Bird, alleging that Bird wrote both of the one-star Yelp reviews, that the reviews were libelous, and that, as a result of the reviews, the Hassell Law Group’s overall Yelp rating had dropped to 4.5 stars. Hassell sought damages, as well as “injunctive relief prohibiting Defendant Ava Bird from continuing to defame [Hassell] … and requiring Defendant Ava Bird to remove each and every defamatory review published by her about [Hassell], from and from anywhere else they appear on the internet.”

Bird did not respond to the lawsuit, resulting in the entry of a default judgment for Hassell. The court awarded $557,918.85 in damages, ordered Bird to remove every review published by her about Hassell or her law firm from Yelp and other websites, and enjoined Bird from publishing any additional reviews about Hassell on Yelp or other websites. Finally, even though Yelp was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, the court ordered Yelp to remove all reviews posted by Bird about Hassell within 7 days.

After a copy of the default judgment was served on the company, Yelp filed a motion to set aside and vacate the default judgment.

In support of its motion, Yelp argued that, to the extent the court order imposed a duty upon it to remove the reviews posted by Bird, the directive violated its right to due process under the federal and state Constitutions since Yelp was not named as a party in the lawsuit. Yelp also asserted that the order was invalid under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which provides, in pertinent part, as follows: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” and “No cause of action may be brought and no liability may be imposed under any State or local law that is inconsistent with this section”

The court denied Yelp’s motion to set aside and vacate the judgment. Yelp appealed, and asserted the same arguments on appeal as the company asserted in the trial court. Both arguments were rejected by the Court of Appeals, however, which affirmed the trial court’s order.

Yelp sought review by the California Supreme Court, which was granted.

In a 4-3 decision, the California Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the trial and appellate courts, ruling that Yelp can’t be ordered to remove the negative reviews of Hassell pasted by Bird. Three justices in the majority said Yelp was protected by the Communications Decency Act, while a concurring justice said Yelp couldn’t be enjoined because the company wasn’t a party in the lawsuit.

The majority held Hassell’s legal remedies lied solely against Bird and could not extend to Yelp. The justices noted the Communications Decency Act bared imposing liability on Yelp and the only course of action could be a court order directing Bird to take down the posts on Yelp herself. The opinion added that the court could enforce its order against Bird thorough contempt sanctions.

The case is attached here – Hassell v. Bird

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