Wednesday, June 8, 2016
Court of Appeal Upholds Order Compelling Removal of Yelp Web Reviews
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A superior court judge did not exceed his authority by ordering the removal of defamatory reviews posted on Yelp.com, the First District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The court partially rejected Yelp, Inc.’s appeal from a removal order entered in an action in which attorney Dawn Hassell and the Hassell Law Group sued former client Ava Bird.
Div. Four held that Yelp was an “aggrieved party” with standing to bring a nonstatutory motion challenging the removal order, even though it was not a party to the underlying lawsuit. But it affirmed the order to remove the defamatory reviews.
The panel, however, agreed with Yelp that San Francisco Superior Court Judge Donald J. Sullivan went too far in enjoining Bird “from publishing or causing to be published any written reviews, commentary or descriptions” of Hassell on Yelp or elsewhere online. That portion of the order amounted to an unconstitutional prior restraint, Presiding Justice Ignacio Ruvolo wrote.
Hassell represented Bird for about 25 days in 2012 in connection with a personal injury matter. She withdrew because of communication difficulties and the client’s expressed dissatisfaction with the representation.
In January 2013, according to the complaint, Bird published a Yelp review that the attorney claims was inaccurate. Bird, however, refused to do so, and allegedly filed additional reviews using pseudonyms.
Hassell said she suspected the additional reviews were posted by Bird because the names or initials that were used did not correspond to any actual clients, and because of the similarity of the language and the timing of the postings.
Bird defaulted and a judgment awarding more than $550,000 in damages, along with the equitable relief, was entered.
Ruvolo, in rejecting Yelp’s arguments, explained that an injunction can run against a nonparty, and that Yelp failed to show any reason why it should not be compelled to remove the defamatory reviews.
Ruvolo rejected the contention that §230(c)(1) of the federal Communications Decency Act protected Yelp from the injunctive order. The statute provides in part that “[n]o 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.”
The order, the presiding justice explained, “does not violate section 230 because it does not impose any liability on Yelp,” contrary to all of the cases cited by the company.
“Neither party cites any authority that applies section 230 to restrict a court from directing an Internet service provider to comply with a judgment which enjoins the originator of defamatory statements posted on the service provider’s Web site. We note, however, that section 230 explicitly provides that ‘[n]othing in this section shall be construed to prevent any State from enforcing any State law that is consistent with this section.’…As discussed above, California law authorizes a trial court to issue an injunction preventing the repetition of statements that have been adjudged to be defamatory by the trier of fact….California law also empowers the court to enforce its judgment by ordering that an injunction run to a non-party through whom the enjoined party may act....It appears to us that these state law procedures are not inconsistent with section 230 because they do not impose any liability on Yelp, either as a speaker or a publisher of third party speech.”
The case is Hassell v. Bird, 16 S.O.S. 2797.
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