Suit to Unmask Nasty Yelp! Reviewer Nixed by IL Court On First Amendment Grounds

With social media use apparently proliferating at breakneck speed, Brompton Building v. Yelp! Inc. (2013 IL App (1st) 120547-U)) is naturally post-worthy for its examination of whether hostile on-line reviews are actionable by the business recipients of the negative reviews.

A former tenant, “Diana Z.”, spewed some invective about an apartment management company where she questioned the management company’s business competence, integrity and people skills; especially as they related to billing and handling tenant rent payments.

The building owner (not the management company; by this time there was new management) sued Yelp!, the online review site, to unearth the reviewer’s identity through a Rule 224 petition for discovery so that it could later sue the reviewer for defamation and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage.  The court found the on-line review consisted of protected expressions of opinion and denied the petition for discovery. The plaintiff building owner appealed.

Result: Affirmed.

Rules/Reasoning:

Rule 224 allows a party to engage in discovery for the singular purpose of ascertaining the identity of one who may be responsible in damages.  The case law applying Rule 224 provides significant protection for anonymous individuals so that there private affairs aren’t intruded on.  The Rule’s mechanics: (1) the petition must be verified, (2) it must say why discovery is necessary, (3) it must be limited to determining the identity of someone who may be responsible in damages to the petitioner; and (4) there must be a court hearing to determine that the unidentified person is in fact possibly liable in damages to the petitioner.   ¶ 13.

The Rule 224 petition must set forth factual allegations sufficient to survive a Section 2-615 motion to dismiss (that is, does the proposed complaint state a cause of action?) in order to successfully seek pre-suit discovery.

In Illinois, defamation suits are defeated by the First Amendment to the US Constitution where the challenged statement isn’t factual (it’s an opinion, for instance) and the action is brought by (1) a public official, (2) a public figure, and (3) actions involving media defendants by private individuals.

There is no defamation for “loose, figurative language” that no person could reasonably believe states a fact. Whether something is sufficiently fact-based to underlie a defamation claim involves looking at (1) whether the statement has a readily understood and precise meaning, (2) whether the statement can be verified, and (3) whether its social or literary context signals that it is factual.  ¶ 20.

Illinois courts also espouse a policy of protecting site defendants like Yelp! from a potential torrent of lawsuits by recipients of negative postings.  In addition, the Federal Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. § 230) usually insulates a website like Yelp! from liability for publishing third party comments.

Here, the plaintiff failed to allege actionable defamation against Yelp!  While the court conceded that Diana Z.’s statement that the property manager was a liar and illegally charging tenants were factual on their face, when considered in context – the plaintiff couched her rant in hyperbolic speech – the statements were (protected) expressions of opinion. ¶¶ 29-30.

Since the plaintiff couldn’t make out an actual defamation claim against the anonymous Yelp! reviewer, its petition for discovery was properly denied.

Take-aways:

This is but one of many lawsuits involving vitriolic on-line criticism of businesses. In Illinois, the law is clear that to get a court to order a website operator to unveil an anonymous reviewer’s identity, the plaintiff must make a prima facie showing that the review is defamatory or had a tendency to cause third parties to dissociate from it and take their business elsewhere. Failing that, the court will deny a petition for discovery and the plaintiff will be left without a defendant or a remedy.

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.