A dispute between a Florida law firm and the review company Ratingz.net has landed in federal court, where Ratingz is asking a judge to declare that the company can't be held responsible for comments posted by users.
The battle, which is playing out in federal court in the Northern District of California, marks the latest instance of a high-profile legal battle between business owners and sites like Yelp or RipOff Report that allow consumers to express opinions. Judges have generally sided with review sites in those lawsuits, ruling that the federal Communications Decency Act protects site operators from liability for users' comments.
This particular dispute seems to have been triggered by two critical posts about the law firm Adrian Philip Thomas -- a small firm that appears to be headed by Thomas; the posts appear on LawyerRatingz.com, a Ratingz site devoted to opinions about attorneys. As of Friday, LawyerRatingz.com displayed 11 reviews about the firm, six of which showered it with praise. The remaining five were critical.
The firm initially focused on two posts -- one from December of 2009 and one from October of 2011, according to court papers. Late last year, the firm's managing partner, Michele Thomas, wrote to Ratingz to complain about those two comments. "The ratings were 'reviewed' and then reinstated with no investigation or follow up with my firm," Michele Thomas said in an email, which Ratingz submitted to the court.
When Ratingz didn't take down the posts, a lawyer representing the Thomas firm demanded that the site "remove Adrian Thomas's name and all ratings (positive and negative)" by Feb. 3.
That deadline came and went, which prompted Adrian and Michele Thomas to send Ratingz a draft of a lawsuit accusing it of interfering with the law firm's business relations. "In addition to the complaint for damages, I will be seeking an injunction to shut your site down -- or at least the portion affecting this firm -- during the pendency of litigation," states the letter, which is dated Feb.10. Thomas also says in that letter that his firm lost prospective clients because of the comments posted online.
The letter includes a passage reminding Ratingz that defending lawsuits can prove costly. "We are both in business and whether to proceed with litigation is a business decision," states the letter. "It is far more cost effective for you to remove one attorney's name from your site than it is to stand on principle and face an injunction and expensive and time-consuming litigation, regardless of whether you believe you will prevail."
If the Thomas firm expected Ratingz to fold, however, the firm was mistaken. Ratingz reached out to the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed suit this week. "All of the content to which [Thomas] objects was created and posted by third parties," Ratingz alleges, adding that it doesn't develop the reviews and doesn't change their substance.
Ratingz is seeking a declaratory judgment that the Communications Decency Act protects the company from liability for users' comments. The company also is asking for an order directing the firm to reimburse Ratingz for its legal costs and attorneys' fees.
The firm didn't respond to a phone call by MediaPost.