Yelp scored a major victory today, when a federal appellate court refused to revive a small business owner's lawsuit against the company over a one-star review.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Yelp is protected from liability for posts by users, thanks to the Communications Decency Act. That law broadly provides that operators of platforms aren't responsible for posts created by users.
The decision stems from a 2013 lawsuit against Yelp by Douglas Kimzey, a locksmith in Redmond, Washington. Kimzey took issue with a review posted in September of 2011 by "Sarah K," who had some choice words about the company. "This was by far the worst experience I have ever encountered with a locksmith," she wrote-- in all capital letters, no less. "Do not go through this company."
Kimzey made a host of allegations against Yelp, in an effort to hold the review site liable for the post, which he believed was defamatory. Among other arguments, he contended that Yelp was responsible for the review because it appeared in Google's search results. (Kimzey apparently contended that Yelp "republished" the review on Google, according to the 9th Circuit's summary of the arguments.)
The appellate court rejected that theory. "Just as Yelp is immune from liability ... for posting user-generated content on its own website, Yelp is not liable for disseminating the same content in essentially the same format to a search engine," the court wrote.
Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who has followed this lawsuit, writes that the decision could serve as "an important and defense-favorable complement" to a 2008 ruling that made it harder for Web site owners to defend themselves when users acted illegally.
In that earlier matter, the 9th Circuit ruled that the site Roommates.com must face a lawsuit accusing it of helping to match roommates based on race, sexual orientation and other unlawful criteria. The Web site had argued that the Communications Decency Act immunized it from discrimination lawsuits based on user posts, but the 9th Circuit ruled that the roommate-matching site couldn't rely on that statute because the company allegedly solicited unlawful information. (Roommates.com ultimately won the lawsuit, but the 2008 opinion is still on the books.)
Goldman also points out that Yelp is still fighting a separate battle over whether it can be forced to remove bad reviews. In that matter, a lawyer who got a bad write-up sued the author without notifying Yelp. The lawyer then obtained a court order requiring Yelp to take down the post.
Yelp says that order should be vacated on the grounds that the company wasn't told about the court case in advance. The California Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether to hear Yelp's appeal.