Virginia Supreme Court To Decide Whether To Unmask Yelp Reviewers

Virginia's highest state court has agreed to decide whether a small-business owner is entitled to know the identities of people who criticized the company on Yelp.

The case stems from an effort by Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, based in Alexandria, Va., to unmask seven Yelp commenters who made negative remarks. Among others, some of those commenters accused Hadeed of charging twice as much as advertised, according to court papers.

Hadeed says it doesn't believe that those reviewers actually used its services. The company sued the commenters, identifying them only as “Does,” and served Yelp with a subpoena for more information about them. Yelp opposed that effort, arguing that business owners shouldn't be able to unmask reviewers without evidence of libel -- meaning that the reviews contained the kind of false factual information that could harm the company's reputation.

Yelp says that Hadeed Carpet's suspicion that the reviews were fake isn't in itself evidence of defamation.

A trial judge and appellate panel sided with Hadeed. The appeals panel said in January that the reviews might have been defamatory if they weren't written by actual customers. The panel ruled 2-1 that Hadeed could unmask the commenters based on a “good faith” belief that they weren't genuine customers.

“The evidence presented by Hadeed was sufficient to show that the reviews are or may be defamatory, if not written by actual customers of Hadeed,” the appellate panel wrote.

Yelp then appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, which announced this month that it will hear the case. Represented by the advocacy group Public Citizen, Yelp argued that the appellate order was at odds with decisions issued by courts in other states.

Yelp says that the key issue in deciding whether the reviews are defamatory isn't whether the reviewers were customers, but whether the information in the posts was wrong. “Hadeed alleges that the posts were false and defamatory, but only because of its suspicion that the authors were not customers,” Yelp said in its petition asking the Virginia Supreme Court to take the case. “Hadeed’s reputation is not affected by whether reviewers are customers or not -- it is only the possible falsity of the bait-and-switch allegations that could hurt Hadeed’s business reputation.”

The Virginia Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case later this year.

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