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The California Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Bad Yelp Reviews

The California Supreme Court rules that Yelp cannot be forced to remove negative reviews of a business.

The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of online review site Yelp.com after a lawyer attempted to use the courts to have a negative review forcefully removed.

As Reason previously reported, personal-injury lawyer Dawn Hassell of the Hassell Law Group accused former client Ava Bird of defaming her law firm on Yelp. Hassell sued Bird in 2013, but Bird did not appear—it is believed that Bird was never served with court papers. The San Francisco County Superior Court ruled in Hassell's favor by default and awarded her $557,918. The court ordered Bird to remove the reviews and Yelp to "remove all reviews posted by AVA BIRD under user names 'Birdzeye B.' and 'J.D.,'" despite not having definitively confirmed that Bird used the alias "J.D."

Though Yelp lawyers said they often comply with such orders, they took issue with the nature of the proceedings, as explained by Yelp Deputy General Counsel Aaron Schur in a blog post:

When Yelp appealed, the Court of Appeal doubled down on the lower court's decision, ruling that Yelp was not a publisher at all, had no right to a hearing in connection with an order to remove reviews, and was not protected by the Communications Decency Act (CDA), the law Congress passed to protect online publishers to shield them them from responsibility for the speech of others. The CDA gives online platforms the right to publish (or not publish) the ideas and opinions of users without the threat of being held liable for that content or forced to remove it. This allows the internet to flourish. The Court of Appeal held that by avoiding suing Yelp directly (to Yelp, a violation of due process) also allowed the plaintiff to sidestep the CDA's broad immunity.

On Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of Yelp. The justices argued that such orders "could interfere with and undermine the viability of an online platform." Hassell's lawyer, Monique Olivier, criticized the ruling, saying that it "stands as an invitation to spread falsehoods on the internet without consequence."

Several organizations came to Yelp's defense, including the the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The ACLU filed an amicus brief in 2016, citing, "the danger that the Court of Appeal's holding posed to online speech." EFF also filed a brief and argued in 2017 that the two lower courts in the case did not "understand that the First Amendment protects not only authors and speakers, but also those who publish or distribute their words." EFF also accused both courts of ignoring "the U.S. Supreme Court's clear holding that issuing an injunction against a non-party is a constitutionally-prohibited violation of due process."

In the same Yelp blog post citing the CDA, Schur made the following observation about Hassell's pursuance of Bird:

The Hassell Law Group, which has always been a highly-rated business on Yelp and currently maintains five stars, has spent many years in the court system (and endured the resulting Streisand Effect) in an effort to force Yelp to silence a pair of outlier reviews. As we have observed before, litigation is never a good substitute for customer service and responsiveness, and had the law firm avoided the courtrooms and moved on, it would have saved time and money, and been able to focus more on the cases that truly matter the most—those of its clients.

Photo Credit: Petrajz/Dreamstime.com

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  • Citizen X||

    Hassell's lawyer, Monique Olivier, criticized the ruling, saying that it "stands as an invitation to spread falsehoods on the internet without consequence."

    Falsehoods? On MY Internet? Nooo.

  • Rich||

    "stands as an invitation to spread falsehoods on the internet without consequence."

    "Without consequence"? Why, you might get a bad Yelp review for spreading falsehoods!

  • Don't look at me.||

    Red Hen hardest hit.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    No right-to-be-forgotten laws just yet.

  • John||

    This stuff will sort itself out. If it becomes the case that bad reviews are too often result of competitors or trolls or whatever, people will figure that out and discount the reviews or stop using Yelp altogether. It sucks for the slandered business, but you can't fix this by the government censoring speech.

    Ultimately, slander is still a tort. If someone goes on Yelp and says something that is factually untrue and not just an opinion, the restaurant can sue them. It is a lot to sue someone. But, it would not take many lawsuits to take all of the fun out of slandering people on yelp.

  • Joe_C||

    This would be libel, not slander. Otherwise, yep the market will figure it out.

  • Scotticus Finch||

    it is believed that Bird was never served with court papers

    Um, what? How is this reporting?

  • Longtobefree||

    Oh, you are thinking about "old" reporting with facts, cited named sources, and actual research and verification. You are about 10 years to late.

    "New" reporting is just an editorial which is not labeled an editorial.

  • Joe_C||

    Yeah, there should've at least been a, "we tried to contact Mrs. Bird, but we weren't able to reach her," or something. Is she dead? This story is about a woman's case and there's not even one iota of what happened with this lady. Surely she got the court notice of that ridiculous sum they expected her to pay.

  • Rossami||

    Actually, it's plausible (and even likely in this case) that nobody really knows if Bird was ever served. Remember that Bird never showed up in court - and we don't know why. The suit was brought by Yelp - who was not a party to the original suit. Yelp would have no direct knowledge of the service of process to Bird and nothing in the Yelp lawsuit would have necessitated using the legal discovery process to figure it out.

    On the other hand, it is highly suspicious that Hassell didn't preemptively disclose proof of service. And it undercuts the credibility of their underlying default judgement if they did in fact fail to serve notice properly.

  • Longtobefree||

    What is Yelp?
    Who believes anything on the internet beside (sometimes) the weather?

  • Ben of Houston||

    I don't understand one thing. The "Bird was never served" was thrown out as an aside, but that's a huge deal.

    If Hassell never served Bird her papers, then they not only have no standing against Yelp, but falsified court documents in a case that went to the State Supreme Court. That's a massive accusation to put against a person without going to it. This is described in page 5 of the court order as "Substitute service" (leaving the papers with someone else at the residence). I cannot find confirmation of whether she ever received the court papers.

    Given the actual case summary, I can understand the request for the removal, but I cannot fathom how the court came up with such an insane judgment. A Half-million dollar tort for a review. Even if it is factually inaccurate, it's at best, bluster, and that cost is insane.

    Given how many people are openly afraid of upsetting lawyers for fear of this, no wonder they have 5 stars.

  • Sevo||

    "Given how many people are openly afraid of upsetting lawyers for fear of this, no wonder they have 5 stars."

    Which sort of makes you wonder who in hell would use Yelp to select legal help.
    Every time I've needed help, I've gone to someone I trust and ask them for a recommendation for legal help regarding X.

  • Joe_C||

    Exactly. That number is insane. How can one review amongst what sounds like hundreds, result in damages of half a million. California is nuts. I'm not sure how this can be handled as I'm not involved in the legal system, but if I were a judge I'd want to just throw this out. "Do you have any proof that this is libel? No. OK, we're done here." What I cannot fathom is how this ultimately ended in a 4-3 judgement, and not 7-0.

  • Gozer the Gozarian||

    The problem I have with Yelp is that it does police its content and quite often will not publish good reviews of a business until that business pays them a membership fee. I've seen this dozens of times with some of the businesses I've worked with.

    By virtue of Yelp charging to allow positive comments, it is itself controlling the content on its site. This is in direct conflict with the CDA in that these comments are no longer openly posted by other users, but regulated prior to publishing by Yelp.

    In that regard, I disagree with the ruling.

  • Whorton||

    By Gawd, I'd sue. . .

    Oh wait, someone did. . .

    She should counter sue, for ONE TRILLION DOLLARS. (Said as Dr. Evil would have said it. with consummate close-up)

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