A Florida lawyer unhappy with poor reviews posted in an online attorney review site is threatening legal action to shutter the LawyerRatingz.com site.
In response to the threatened legal action, the Electronic Frontier Foundation asked a federal judge Thursday to declare the website immune from any threatened legal action on the matter. The EFF contends that, even if third-party comments about attorneys are defamatory, federal law immunizes the Sunnyvale-based website from being sued for the speech of its users.
The legal flap began last year, when a representative of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, lawyer Adrian Philip Thomas demanded that his poor reviews be removed from the site. The representative said the anonymous reviews, which among other things gave him “bad” marks in knowledge, communication, tenacity, work quality and value, have led to a loss of business. Another said Thomas’ firm “accomplished nothing” and “DO NOT HIRE THIS LAW FIRM!” However, not all reviews of Thomas were negative.
A proposed lawsuit by Thomas forwarded to the review site, which sports some 42,000 lawyer ratings, sought to shutter the entire site, or, at the very least, have his reviews removed.
The EFF, in a complaint filed in San Francisco federal court, said LawyerRatingz.com is protected by the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which says “interactive computer services” cannot be “treated as the publisher or speaker of any information” provided by a third party.
“Mr. Thomas’s claims are meritless and run afoul of bedrock legal principles protecting website operators,” EFF senior staff attorney Matt Zimmerman said in a statement. “Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act categorically protects providers of ‘interactive computer services’ from suits such as this one seeking to make them responsible for the speech of their users. Without such protections, valuable sites like LawyerRatingz.com — or Facebook or Yelp or individual blogs that rely upon user comments — simply could not exist.”
Thomas did not immediately respond for comment.
The CDA does not, however, immunize the reviewers from a potential defamation suit. Theoretically, Thomas could try to sue the individuals who posted on the site. Generally, websites are not ordered to turn over users’ identifying information until after it has been proven that the statements are, indeed, defamatory.