Lawyer’s Lawsuit Against Online Reviewer Is Dismissed

One piece of advice I give consistently to lawyers is to ignore any negative reviews. If you respond substantively, you might disclose a confidence and subject yourself to discipline. Accept the bad review as a badge of honor and work on productive matters. The case of Gurstein v. Doe, No. 352225, Michigan Court of Appeals (Unpublished) addresses another issue: whether the lawyer can sue for libel.

According to the opinion, a “John Doe” posted a one star review of the law firm. The review contained no text. Gurstein sued for libel. The trial court dismissed the lawsuit and the Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

The reasoning:

“We conclude that, as a matter of law, a one-star wordless review posted on Google Review is an expression of opinion protected by the First Amendment. Edwards, 322 Mich App at 13. We have previously held that “[t]he context and forum in which statements appear also affect whether a reasonable reader would interpret the statements as asserting provable facts.” Ghanam, 303 Mich App at 546 (quotation marks and citations omitted). In the context of Internet message boards and similar opinion-based platforms, statements “are generally regarded as containing statements of pure opinion rather than statements or implications of actual, provable fact . . . .

Indeed, the very fact that most of the posters [on Internet message boards] remain anonymous, or pseudonymous, is acue to discount their statements accordingly.” Id. at 546-547 (quotation marks and citations omitted). As plaintiffs note, Google Review is an online consumer review service where posters can share their subjective experience with, among other things, a business, a professional, or a brand. We therefore conclude that Google Review is no different than the[I]nternet message boards in Ghanam; that is, it contains purely a poster’s opinions, which are afforded First Amendment protection.Plaintiffs, however, argue Doe 2’s one-star Google review was a defamatory statement by implication. Plaintiffs assert that “Google review is an [I]nternet-based consumer review service” where individuals can post reviews of a business or professional on the basis of their actual experience; therefore, by posting a wordless one-star Google review, the poster implies that his or her experience with that business was a negative one. Because Doe 2 failed to establish that he or she was a prospective, former, or current client, plaintiffs contend that the review is defamatory as it was implied that Doe 2 had an actual attorney-client experience and received legal services from plaintiffs. But plaintiffs fail to establish how Doe 2’s one-star review was materially false. American Transmission, Inc, 239 Mich App at 702. Indeed, plaintiffs do not even know Doe 2’s true identity. While plaintiffs urge this Court to assume Doe 2 is a competitor-attorney because Doe 1 was identified as such, this is mere speculation without any factual basis.

Similarly, plaintiffs argue Doe 2 was only permitted to post a review that evaluated their attorney-client experience with plaintiffs. Google’s policy states that “content should reflect [the poster’s] genuine experience at the location and should not be posted just to manipulate a place’s ratings.” Because Google’s policy does not limit aposter’s experience to an attorney-client experience, it could reflect any experience with plaintiffs, including their website, physical location, blogs, in-court interactions, or appearance. Accordingly, even if Doe 2’s wordless one-star Google review was “couched in opinion,” it was not actionable defamation because it contained a subjective rating of plaintiffs’ business without any further words or statements describing that experience. Such a review could not imply an assertion of objective fact, but onlyan opinion, that is protected under the First Amendment. Ghanam, 303 Mich App at 545.

Therefore, the trial court did not err in concluding that the wordless one-star Google review was incapable of defamatory meaning as a matter of law. See Thomas M Cooley Law Sch, 300 Mich App at 269-270; Ghanam, 303 Mich App at 529.”

It is unfortunate that lawyers overreact to negative reviews. Don’t do it. It isn’t worth it and nothing good will come of a complaint about a negative review. I would encourage a lawyer to ignore this review and spend your time on productive matters.

Should you have a question about a legal ethics issue, do not hesitate to contact us at 312-357-1515.

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