You Be the Judge: Yelp for Help

Can a court order Yelp to remove a customer's negative review? How would you rule?

A smartphone with the Yelp app displayed on its screen

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On August 20, 2012, San Francisco attorney Dawn Hassell signed an agreement to represent Ava Bird in a personal injury claim. Less than a month later, Hassell withdrew her representation because Bird was unresponsive to communications.

On January 28, 2013, Bird posted a one-star Yelp review about the attorney, writing that her case had “fallen through the floor” because Hassell had reneged on their agreement, adding that Hassell’s law firm didn’t “bother to communicate with me, the client, or the insurance company AT ALL” before withdrawing from the case on September 13, 2012.

Hassell sent a message to Bird, requesting she remove “factual inaccuracies and defamatory remarks” from Yelp. Bird refused and shortly after posted another negative review about the attorney’s firm using a fake name.

In response, Hassell posted a reply, stating that she “welcomed constructive criticism from clients” but took issue with Bird’s “malicious and untruthful review,” adding that during the 25 days she represented Bird, Hassell had communicated with her at least 15 times (12 in writing) and spoke to her insurance provider at least twice before withdrawing from the case.

In April 2013, Hassell sued Bird for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Bird never answered the complaint, but did acknowledge the lawsuit on Yelp.

In January 2014, the trial court held a hearing on a motion for a default judgment against Bird. The judge considered documentary evidence from Hassell and granted a default judgment against Bird for defamation, ordering her to remove the defamatory posts and awarding Hassell $557,918.75 in damages. In addition, the court ordered Yelp to remove Bird’s defamatory posts within five days.

Neither Bird nor Yelp complied with the court order, and to add insult to injury, Yelp highlighted Bird’s reviews. Hassell accused Yelp of “aiding and abetting Bird’s violation of the injunction.”

In May 2014, Yelp appealed to the Court of Appeals of California to overturn the trial court’s entire default judgment against Bird, including the order for Yelp to remove her posts. Yelp argued that Bird had not received proper service of the complaint; that Yelp was not a named party in the lawsuit; and that it was immune from any liability under the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), which gives websites and social media companies broad immunity from civil cases over the content users publish on their platforms. 

How Would You Rule?

The Court of Appeals upheld the default judgment against Bird and ruled that Yelp was not immune from liability because removing the reviews posed no liability on Yelp. Bird was the only one liable for damages.

Yelp appealed to the California Supreme Court, which upheld the trial court’s default judgment against Bird. But in a 4–3 split, the court overturned the removal order against Yelp, finding that forcing a site to remove user-generated posts “can impose substantial burdens” on the online company. In the majority opinion, the chief justice wrote: “Even if it would be mechanically simple to implement such an order, compliance still could interfere with and undermine the viability of an online platform.”

A dissenting judge disagreed, warning, “The internet has the potential not only to enlighten but to spread lies, amplifying defamatory communications to an extent unmatched in our history.”

Bird’s defamatory reviews remain posted on Yelp. Bird has refused to comply with the injunction, and Yelp claims it is under no legal obligation to comply.

This article is featured in the March/April 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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