A libel lawsuit filed by an Illinois lawyer against people who gave him negative online reviews and one-star ratings has been dismissed in federal court.
The bad publicity came in the wake of posts the lawyer made on Facebook. Commenters criticized the posts as offensive, racist, embarrassing and unprofessional. In response, some posted scathing reviews on his law firm’s Facebook, Yelp and Google business pages, even though they were not former clients and had never used his legal services.
Those negative comments were statements of opinion that could not support a libel claim, said the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in granting the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The court reasoned as follows:
- The statements did not have “precise and readily understood specific meanings.”
- The statements could not be objectively verified as true or false. From the opinion: “How could a third-party observer gauge whether the commentator received awful customer service, for instance, by just reading a one-star review that says, ‘Terrible experience. Awful customer service’? What objective indicator defines whether a given customer service experience was good or bad? Or whether a service or good was worth the money?”
- A one-star review, by itself, doesn’t contain an “objective fact that could be true or false.”
- The reviews “did not purport to provide any factual foundation and were clearly meant to express the opinions of the defendants” in response to the lawyer’s post.”
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ABA Formal Opinion 496
Responding to Online Criticism
The following ethics opinion was issued by the ABA in January 2021.
Lawyers are regularly targets of online criticism and negative reviews.
Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.6(a) prohibits lawyers from disclosing information relating to any client’s representation or information that could reasonably lead to the discovery of confidential information by another. A negative online review, alone, does not meet the requirements of permissible disclosure in self-defense under Model Rule 1.6(b)(5) and, even if it did, an online response that discloses information relating to a client’s representation or that would lead to discovery of confidential information would exceed any disclosure permitted under the Rule.
As a best practice, lawyers should consider not responding to a negative post or review, because doing so may draw more attention to it and invite further response from an already unhappy critic. Lawyers may request that the website or search engine host remove the information. Lawyers who choose to respond online must not disclose information that relates to a client matter, or that could reasonably lead to the discovery of confidential information by another, in the response. Lawyers may post an invitation to contact the lawyer privately to resolve the matter. Another permissible online response would be to indicate that professional considerations preclude a response.
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