Commentary

Jury Finds Contractor, Consumer Defamed Each Other On Yelp

In 2012, Jane Perez of Fairfax County, Va., took to Yelp and Angie's List to complain about a contractor she had hired, Christopher Dietz. She criticized his work, and also implied that someone from his company stole jewelry from her home.

Dietz responded by suing Perez for defamation. He sought damages of $750,000, and an order directing Perez to remove her reviews. Perez subsequently countersued Dietz, alleging that he defamed her in his responses to her posts. (Dietz reportedly said Perez never paid him, among other accusations.)

Last Friday, a jury decided that Dietz and Perez defamed each other -- but that neither one was entitled to damages.

But that verdict isn't going to end the case. In many ways, the most interesting part of the battle is just beginning. That's because Dietz intends to ask for an order requiring Perez to remove at least some of her posts, according to his attorney, Sara Kropf of Washington, D.C.

advertisement

advertisement

“We will definitely seek an injunction requiring her to take down any statements that court thinks are defamatory,” Kropf tells MediaPost.

She adds that the judge has already said he will consider arguments about the issue. But whether a Virginia judge can issue that sort of order is unclear.

Earlier in the proceedings, a judge in Fairfax County issued a preliminary order forcing Perez to delete her comments about the missing jewelry. Civil rights advocates argued that type of order was an unlawful prior restraint -- meaning a prohibition on speech before there's been a trial about whether it violates any laws. Generally, judges aren't allowed to censor speech based on mere allegations.

Perez appealed, with the help of Public Citizen's Paul Alan Levy and the ACLU. In late December of 2012, a three-judge appellate panel in Virginia agreed with Perez and lifted the injunction. The one-page order said that the original injunction was "not justified."

Now that there's been a jury verdict, an injunction ordering Perez to erase her comments would no longer be a “prior restraint.” But it's still problematic, according to Levy.

One reason is that Virginia courts historically don't issue injunctions when parties are eligible to obtain monetary damages. In this case, Dietz was eligible for monetary damages -- even though the jury declined to award him any.

Another problem is that the jury didn't specify which of Perez's many comments were defamatory. Levy says that without that type of decision from the jury, it's not clear how a judge could order a specific post removed.

For Dietz, of course, getting the reviews taken down is probably among his top priorities. After all, the last thing a contractor wants is for the public to see a post accusing him of theft.

At the same time, as Levy has pointed out from the beginning, suing clients for their reviews probably isn't good for business, either.

Dietz's attorney says she expects a decision within around five weeks.

Next story loading loading..