A federal court dismissed a lawyer’s $1.5 million defamation lawsuit against Avvo, Inc., a website which compiles and maintains an electronic directory of lawyers, for posting a low attorney rating on the internet and false information that negatively impacted the lawyer’s ability to attract new clients. Straw v. Avvo, Inc., 2020 BL 326152, W.D. Wash., No. 2:20-cv-00294, 8/27/20

Plaintiff Andrew U. D. Straw, an attorney in western Washington state, filed a federal court complaint against Avvo, Inc., regarding information Avvo published about Mr. Straw.

Mr. Straw asserted claims for defamation, tortious interference with contractual relations, intentional infliction of emotional distress and disability discrimination against Avvo. The claims were based upon two specific statements Avvo published about Mr. Straw: (1) the “3.1 score out of 10” that Avvo listed on Mr. Straw’s directory page; and (2) allegedly false information stating that Mr. Straw’s bar status in the state of Virginia was “not active but disabled.” Mr. Straw claimed that the allegedly false statements and poor ranking on his Avvo profile harmed him and prevented him from obtaining clients.

Straw alleged that the low rating was a result of collusion between Avvo and the state of Indiana regarding a disciplinary action. Straw maintained Indiana wrongly disciplined him for allegedly frivolous filings and discriminated against him in the process. Virginia concluded that he did not deserve to be disciplined, but that information was wrongfully omitted from Straw’s his Avvo profile.

Avvo filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s lawsuit, arguing that each of Mr. Straw’s causes of action should be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.  In response to Avvo’s motion to dismiss, Mr. Straw moved for an order directing Avvo to show cause why Avvo and its counsel should not be sanctioned for the arguments advanced in the motion to dismiss.

In response, the federal court judge entered an Order dismissing Straw’s complaint. The court concluded that Straw couldn’t sue for defamation over a low Avvo rating because ratings are a statement of opinion protected by the First Amendment. The court also ruled that Straw could not sue over the alleged false statement about the Virginia bar license because he did not adequately plead damages.

The federal court also dismissed Straw’s other claims. The court dismissed the tortious interference claim because Straw didn’t identify specific parties who did not hire him as clients after visiting Avvo. The court dismissed the emotional distress claim because Avvo’s alleged conduct didn’t rise to the level of “outrageous and extreme” as required under the law. And the court tossed the claim for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because of a lack of specifics.

However, the court allowed Straw to amend the complaint “out of an abundance of caution.” The court also dismissed Straw’s order to show cause for sanctions against Avvo and its counsel, ruling that Straw’s motion fell “woefully short of identifying any sanctionable conduct on Avvo’s behalf.”

The case is attached here –  Straw v. Avvo, Inc., 2020 BL 326152, W.D. Wash., No. 2:20-cv-00294, 8/27/20

UPDATED ON SEPTEMBER 6, 2020: Andrew Straw, the plaintiff in the case attached above, contacted me via email about the case. As a result, I learned that the lawsuit Mr. Straw filed against Avvo, Inc. is on-going since he filed an Amended Complaint, as authorized by the trial court. Mr. Straw’s email to me is reproduced below. I also attached the Amended Complaint he filed, as well as an Order of Dismissal from the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board proving that, contrary to Avvo’s website profile of him, Mr. Straw’s his license was always valid in the State of Virginia, along with a screenshot of Mr. Straw’s profile on the Avvo website.

Dear Mr. Vanarelli,

I saw your blog entry about Straw v. Avvo and wanted to make sure you have the actual documents for my amended complaint so you know exactly what is going on from my point of view.

Essentially, you can boil down the argument to the fact that Avvo is cooperating with my abusive former employer, generating a rating that uses the discrimination while mixing in the falsehood that my Virginia State Bar license was not active from 2016-2019 when in fact, it was.

No lawyer should have to put up with a national lawyer directory stating falsehoods about licenses for literally years and misrepresenting to the public that the lawyer had no active license for years.  Avvo did that.  I have an exhibit from VSB that proves what I say about my license.  You now have it.

If you do a follow-up, I have these quotes for you.

“While the judge dismissed my case against Avvo, he was kind enough to let me amend and I have now done so,” Straw said.  “There are problems with Avvo placing false information about bar status, which they are in the business of checking, and I proved Avvo knew the status for me was false more likely than not for 4 years.  This seriously hurts an attorney because practicing law without a license is a crime in Virginia.”

“The rating may be immune from defamation analysis, but it certainly is a mathematical calculation using bar status, Avvo admits, and this can demonstrate malice in a number of tort contexts,” Straw said.  “From 2016-2019, the largest directory of American lawyers falsely listed me as unable to practice law in Virginia when I was in fact active in good standing.  This hurt me and I want the judge to see this, along with other lawyers who will be hurt if Avvo gets away with this.” 

Sincerely, Andrew U. D. Straw, Esq. (Virginia)

The Amended Complaint filed by Mr. Straw is attached here – Straw v. Avvo – COMPLAINT

The Order of Dismissal from the Virginia State Bar Disciplinary Board showing the status of Mr. Straw’s license to practice law in the State of Virginia is attached here – Straw – Virginia State Bar Order of Dismissal

A screenshot of Mr. Straw’s profile on the Avvo website is attached here – Straw – Avvo Screenshots

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About Donald D. Vanarelli 

Recipient of the Marilyn Askin Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Elder and Disability Law Section, Donald D. Vanarelli is a Certified Elder Law Attorney, and a member of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Mr. Vanarelli is also an Accredited Veterans Attorney and an Accredited Professional Mediator. He has successfully litigated cases in New Jersey’s Supreme Court and in federal court. Mr. Vanarelli represents seniors, the disabled and their families in estate planning, financing long-term medical care, nursing home issues, qualifying for Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid and other public benefits, special needs planning, and litigation, including probate, elder abuse and guardianship lawsuits.

About The Law Office of Donald D. Vanarelli 

Located in Westfield, New Jersey, the Law Office of Donald D. Vanarelli provides a broad range of legal services for seniors, the disabled and their families. The law firm guides clients through complex legal areas including public benefits planning, trial advocacy and court procedures, the administrative process, as well as estate and gift tax laws.

Contact: Ginny Morrissey, The Law Office of Donald D. Vanarelli, Tel: 908-232-7400, Email: gmorrissey@VanarellilLaw.com