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Negative Online Reviews—Think Twice Before You Sue Your Client

By Lisa F. Geherin posted 07-22-2019 09:02


Everyone uses online reviews to make decisions about everything—from choosing a restaurant to picking out a new appliance. The same is true with consumers of legal services. A potential client is much more likely to hire a lawyer with a five-star average as opposed to one with only three stars. And it only takes one disgruntled client to bring that high average down.

Managing your online reputation can be tricky, especially because reviews are usually couched in the form of an opinion. However, claiming something is an opinion doesn’t necessarily make it so. The key to suing for defamation, according to lawyer Justin Kelton in When Leaving a Bad Review Gets You Sued, is “whether the review contains assertions of fact, as opposed to opinion, and whether the assertions of fact are demonstrably false.”

In Michigan, “[a] communication is defamatory if it tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.” Smith v Anonymous Joint Enter, 487 Mich 102, 113, 793 NW2d 533 (2010).  But just because you can sue your client, should you? Suing a customer could actually damage your brand, in part because a lawsuit could generate a great deal of negative press, comments Jeana Goosmann. Finally, look at your own performance and ask yourself whether you carried out your end of the deal and whether your client raised any concerns about your performance.

Likewise, even winning a case won’t necessarily solve the problem. Take the case of Hassell v Bird, a highly publicized California defamation case where attorney Dawn Hassell sued her former client, Ava Bird, for negative Yelp reviews after a series of communication difficulties that resulted in Hassell withdrawing from representation. Several months later, Bird posted her one-star review claiming in part, “… but the hassell law group didn’t ever speak with the insurance company either, neglecting their said responsibilities and not living up to their own legal contract! nor did they bother to communicate with me, the client or the insurance company AT ALL. then she dropped the case … .”

Hassell sent Bird an email requesting that Bird remove the review or revise it and mentioned the possibility of a defamation lawsuit if she refused. Bird did not alter the original review and the lawsuit followed. After several attempts at service, Hassell moved for a default judgment. She was eventually awarded special costs and damages totaling $557,918.85 and the court entered an injunction order requiring Bird to remove the defamatory postings. The injunction further ordered Yelp to remove the reviews in the event Bird did not. But, in what was likely a disappointing twist for Hassell, Bird did not remove the reviews, Yelp was granted immunity from the injunction under the Communications Decency Act of 1996, 47 USC 230, and the defamatory reviews can still be found online.