No Country For Calling Lawyers Mean Names
July 1, 2016 (Fault Lines) — It is a great day in American history. Clients unhappy with their attorney’s services, according to a California Court of Appeals, don’t get to call their former counsel “Lawyer Meany McChargyPants,” “Blood-Sucking Vampire,” or any other naughty names on review websites. Those of us who work in the trenches tirelessly for people facing government persecution are free from the label “hack,” and clients no longer get to complain online about how much their lawyers charge. It’s a smell of sweet, sweet freedom.
Yelp must remove a user’s online reviews that defamed her former attorney for supposedly taking clerical fees out of her settlement, a California appeals court ruled.
Just 25 days after Ava Bird hired the Hassell Law Group to represent her on a personal injury claim in 2012, Dawn Hassell withdrew as counsel, allegedly due to communication issues.
“Communication issues” could mean any number of grievances in the attorney world. When a lawyer withdraws representation, they usually have to file a notice in with the Court. It’s generally considered good practice to mask your rationale for withdrawal in a manner that doesn’t adversely affect your former client’s interests. Based on Ava Bird’s conduct, one would think the “communication issue” in play was a fundamental misunderstanding of a signed contract for legal services.
Within months, Bird allegedly published a review on Yelp.com, under the name “Birdzeye B. Los Angeles,” giving Hassell one out of five stars, and stating that the law firm deserved less.
Indeed, Bird or her agent created a fake Yelp identity, using the pseudonym “J.D., from Alameda,” to post another one-star review about the Hassell firm, the attorney says.
“They charged me, their client, to make COPIES, send out FAXES, POSTAGE, AND FOR MAKING PHONE CALLS about my case!!!” the review reportedly said. “Isn’t that your job.” (Capitalization in original.)
Generally, an attorney’s job is litigating, not serving as an office assistant. We charge for our time, even when making phone calls. And despite Bird’s blindness to the issue, copies, faxes and postage cost money. When we have to make a copy or use a few stamps, we can and will charge you for the costs. Hassell wasn’t going to take this insult lightly, and decided to sue Bird for defamation, libel, false light invasion of privacy and emotional distress.
The suit earned Hassell a favorable judgment of over half a million dollars and a court order directing Yelp to take down the nasty words in ALL CAPS that hurt Hassell’s feelings. Unfortunately, her battle wasn’t finished, as Yelp decided to step in and object, claiming standing as an “aggrieved party.” When the trial court shrugged, Yelp appealed the decision.
California Appellate Judge Ignacio Ruvolo, in a thirty-four page unanimous opinion for the three-judge panel, first directed Yelp’s senior counsel to sit down, because he and his colleagues had something to tell Yelp, and it was going to make them very sad. If a court ordered Yelp to remove a review and Yelp wasn’t a party, Yelp didn’t get to interject and cause a fuss.
“Throughout proceedings in the trial court and on appeal, Yelp has endeavored to blur the distinction between the judgment entered against Bird which awarded Hassell damages and injunctive relief, and the removal order in the judgment which directs Yelp to effectuate the injunction against Bird,” Judge Ignazio Ruvolo wrote for the three-judge panel.
There were apparently issues with Yelp’s senior counsel understanding the difference between defamatory statements and speech protected by the First Amendment. It’s libel when a court says it’s libel, and nothing you can do will change that.
“Yelp’s claimed interest in maintaining [its] website as it deems appropriate does not include the right to second-guess a final court judgment which establishes that statements by a third party are defamatory and thus unprotected by the First Amendment.”
There was also an issue of timeliness, too. Apparently Yelp’s attorney filed the Motion to Vacate over 100 days past the deadline. The trial court has to review the matter and look at specific statements alleged “defamatory” in the original case, but who cares? This is incredible news for anyone who can’t stand being called Judgy McMeanyFace, “Lawyer Liar,” or any other name.
Our courts have finally recognized an attorney’s right to thin skin and special snowflake status. That’s patriotism worth celebrating this weekend, as Americans celebrate Independence Day. Lawyers are now free from mean name calling. All we have to do next is get our own pronouns and litigate a few microaggressions.