Lawyer Defamed On Yelp Presses Supreme Court To Take Case

A lawyer who says she was defamed on Yelp is pressing the Supreme Court to consider whether the review site must remove objectionable posts.

Attorney Dawn Hassell recently asked the Supreme Court to review a decision issued last year by California's highest court, which ruled 4-3 that Yelp can't be required to take down bad reviews. Yelp, which is urging the Supreme Court to reject that request, argues that the California judges decided the case correctly.

Hassell's lawyers now argue in their final pitch to the Supreme Court that the California court's decision leaves people who have been harmed by online posts without effective recourse. Her lawyers contend that allowing the ruling to stand “would thwart the ability of courts throughout the country to order the removal of illegal, tortious, and injurious content from the Internet.”

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The battle dates to 2013, when Hassell sued a former client over reviews posted to Yelp. The ex-client didn't appear in court, and Hassell was awarded a default judgment of more than $500,000.

The trial judge also directed Yelp to take down the posts -- although the company wasn't named as a defendant in the lawsuit. After Yelp learned what had happened, it asked the judge to vacate the injunction. Yelp argued that it should have been present in court, where it could have defended its right to display the posts.

The California Supreme Court agreed with Yelp, ruling that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act -- which immunizes online platforms from liability for content created by users -- protects Yelp from takedown orders.

Yelp argued to the Supreme Court that the California court's decision should stand for several reasons, including that a ruling in Hassell's favor could spur other subjects of bad reviews to file suit, obtain default judgments, and then obtain takedown orders against companies that weren't parties to the case. That result would amount to “a gaping hole in the broad immunity adopted by Congress in Section 230.”

The Supreme Court is slated to decide whether to take up the case at its January 18 conference. 

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