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SLO lawyer sues former client over online reviews 

Was your dinner served cold or undercooked? Was the waitress rude? Did the mechanic who fixed your car overcharge you? These days, letting the whole world know about your dissatisfaction with a business is as easy as jumping on a laptop or smartphone and leaving a scathing review. 

But can such reviews cross the legal line? A local divorce attorney is alleging exactly that in recently filed lawsuit, claiming that a former client of his took to Internet review sites to defame him.

R. Morgan Holland, a family law and bankruptcy attorney who operates in SLO and Santa Barbara counties, filed a lawsuit July 20 against a former client, Jason Weland, for defamation, civil harassment, and breach of contract. In the lawsuit, Holland alleges that Weland posted multiple “false, misleading, and unsavory” statements about him in reviews on websites such as Yelp, Citysearch, and Superpages. The suit alleges that Weland posted to the websites under his own name, other names, and anonymously more than
100 times.

“If defendants are permitted to continue their actions complained of herin it will produce great waste of [Holland’s] business and irreparable injury to [Holland’s] reputation,” the lawsuit, authored by Holland himself, stated.

The suit was filed nearly five years after Holland represented Weland in a prolonged and acrimonious divorce case. The case was a substantial amount of work, Holland claimed, and it included multiple conferences and a 40-day trial. In the 11 months it took to resolve the case, Weland racked up a bill of about $26,000 in legal fees, according to the lawsuit.

“At no time did Weland object to the services or to the amount of fees and costs he was incurring or substitute [Holland] out of the case as his attorney of record,” the lawsuit stated. In 2014, a dispute over Weland’s legal tab went to court but was settled on Feb. 2, 2014. Weeks later, the reviews began appearing online.

“These statements were made to the public at large and to anyone and everyone that might be searching for a family law or bankruptcy attorney in San Luis Obispo or Santa Maria,” the lawsuit stated.

Holland’s suit detailed 16 occasions when Weland allegedly posted to various websites under various names. In the posts, Weland said that he was over charged for legal services and refers to Holland as unethical. Many of those statements, which the suit asserts violated some of the various websites’ terms of service, were taken down. Speaking to New Times, Weland didn’t dispute that he left reviews online. He said he wasn’t aware he was being sued but said the statements he made on the sites were factually accurate.

“I had to raise a flag somewhere,” he said. “I was very meticulous in putting down the history of events as it happened.”

Whether or not the posts were defamatory will likely be settled in court. Meanwhile, many of the allegedly defamatory reviews appear to have been taken down on Yelp and Superpages. According to Holland, the damage is done. He said that getting bad reviews, even those with untrue information, taken off the websites was difficult. 

“Online service providers enjoy a carte blanche,” he said. “There’s very little motivation to do anything about it.”

Some websites won’t take reviews down unless the post violates the website’s terms of service. Even when those posts do, the process can take time, meaning the reviews stay up for Internet users to see.

“If they take three days to take it down, that’s not good for the business,” Holland said. 

In a world where almost everyone has near-constant access to the Internet, monitoring online reputation via reviews has become increasingly important for businesses. 

“The impact of online reviews is huge,” said Robbie Shipman, one of the owners of SLO Econcept Inc., a marketing company that offers free classes to local businesses about managing their online reputation. “It’s the most inexpensive thing to fix, but the most expensive thing not to fix.”

Shipman said that the company helps businesses collect their good reviews and put them in a single place where users can see them. He added that consumers shouldn’t judge a business based on a single bad review.

“A few negative reviews on a site shouldn’t be a reflection of the business as a whole,” he said. “Every business has a bad day. You need to make sure the people get to see the whole picture and a true picture of the business itself.” 

While the result of Holland’s lawsuit remains to be seen, it isn’t the first time an online review has prompted civil action. In May, a Jefferson County, Colo., flooring company filed a defamation suit against a couple that took to Yelp to complain about the job it did. According to a report by local television affiliate FOX 31, the couple’s review stated that the company, Footprints Floors, botched installing flooring in their home. They claimed that the finished floor didn’t meet code and that doors in their home wouldn’t open because the floors hadn’t been leveled properly. Footprints Floors claimed that it lost more than $625,000 in revenue because of the review. The lawsuit was eventually settled, but not before the couple racked up $65,000 in legal fees.  

That lawsuit may have ramifications far beyond the Colorado county court where it was filed. The media publicity around the case caught the attention of Colorado state Sen. Tim Neville (R-Jefferson County), who said he would consider introducing a bill to protect online reviewers under an anti-SLAPP law, FOX 31 reported.

SLAPP, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, are frivolous lawsuits filed with the intent to intimidate and silence critics. Currently some states, like California and Texas, have anti-SLAPP laws that allow judges to dismiss such lawsuits. There is no federal anti-SLAPP law, but one California congresswoman wants to change that.

In May, U.S. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) introduced the SPEAK FREE Act of 2015, which would create a federal process that would allow lawsuits to be dismissed if they can be proved meet the merits of a SLAPP case. In a press release, Eshoo noted that the legislation, if passed, would extend such protections to online reviews like those on Yelp and other websites.

“When an Internet user chooses to review a product or service online, they should not have to fear being sued by that company just because they offer a review that isn’t a glowing one,” Eshoo said. “The SPEAK FREE Act ensures nationwide protections against SLAPPs without preempting strong state laws like California’s pioneering anti-SLAPP law. Most importantly, this legislation protects free speech for Americans on the Internet.”

Protection under such anti-SLAPP laws would be predicated on the review being “honest,” the press release notes, and the honesty and accuracy of the claims is the heart of the issue when it comes to Holland’s case against his former client. As of Aug. 3, the case hadn’t been scheduled for a hearing in SLO County Superior Court.

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter @CWMcGuinness.

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