Negative Reviews: Franchises Pursuing Truth, Justice, & Defamation Claims

by Lewitt Hackman
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Lewitt Hackman

Franchised businesses, particularly restaurants, hotels, automotive servicers and others have been falling victim to the digital age. Many consumers now choose the places they do business based on what they read on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other internet review sites.

This is great for franchises with mostly glowing, 5-star reviews. But every now and then, a business may fail to please a customer, and the results can be financially hurtful, if not devastating. All it takes is one eloquently written negative review, or multiple not so well-written posts by one particularly angry troll.

So how should management react? Here’s what every franchise owner, manager and marketer should know about the legal ramifications.

Consumer Anonymity in Social Media

It’s all about protecting free speech. Most recently:

Twitter filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, and Customs and Border Patrol to protect the identity of user @ALT_uscis.

This anti-government account is just one of many “Alt Twitter” profiles that have popped up since President Donald Trump moved into the White House. And @ALT_uscis proved especially vocal when it came to denouncing the president – which prompted a Customs and Border Patrol summons requesting Twitter reveal the identity of this user to the government.

Twitter refused to do so, primarily because the summons didn’t cite a compelling or legitimate reason for the social media platform to comply. The government withdrew its request, and Twitter has since dropped the suit.

Revealing anonymous user IDs has been historically unsuccessful:

An Oregon hotelier attempted to sue TripAdvisor for the scathing comments made by the site’s user “12Kelly”. This reviewer claimed to have stayed on the property in March of 2014, described the rooms and food as “nasty”, the owner a weed smoker, and a front desk employee as someone who was having phone sex, presumably in the presence of the TripAdvisor reviewer. The profile for “12Kelly” said the site’s user was from Prescott, Arizona.

Hotel management couldn’t find a guest from March 2014 hailing from Prescott that would have matched the “12Kelly” user profile, so they sued TripAdvisor for defamation and filed a motion to compel the website to reveal the identity of 12Kelly, with the intention of adding that user later as a co-defendant.

According to the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, the defamation suit failed because of a state media shield law. 12Kelly remained anonymous, and TripAdvisor continued business as usual.

But a new day in cyber litigation is dawning, and we may be seeing sparks of hope in combatting anonymous reviewers. If a franchise or business is the victim of outright lies, and can prove that is so, a defamation suit may succeed.

Take the case of Yelp v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning. Hadeed filed a defamation lawsuit against seven anonymous reviewers on Yelp who allegedly falsely claimed to be customers. Hadeed served a subpoena on Yelp, seeking the identities of these John Does.

Though Yelp objected because of free speech rights, a circuit court and an appellate court in Virginia enforced Hadeed’s subpoena. The appellate bench stated that free speech rights of consumers should be balanced against a business’s right to protect its reputation.

A Virginia supreme court decided for Yelp however, but strictly on jurisdictional grounds, saying Hadeed should have brought the suit in California where Yelp headquarters are located. The court refused to consider the First Amendment questions. Given that both the trial and appellate courts found for Hadeed, the company may have a strong case.

And a retailer in Texas recently emerged victorious against anonymous employees who posted derogatory comments:

Glassdoor, Inc. operates a free jobs website, which invites users to rate their current or former employer companies. Texas retailer Andra Group, LP claimed several comments on Glassdoor were false and defamatory. The statements said Andra’s hiring practices were illegal and in violation of labor laws; that racial harassment was common; and that the company hired illegal immigrants.

Andra did not intend to sue Glassdoor, but wished to investigate potential claims of defamation or business disparagement against the website’s users. Glassdoor argued First Amendment rights for their users and filed an anti-SLAPP motion – a motion to strike down a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

The Appellate Court in this case rejected the First Amendment argument, as those rights must be balanced against legitimate business disparagement claims. It also denied Glassdoor’s anti-SLAPP motion, because Andra had evidence of monetary damages (loss of qualified job candidates and additional costs for new recruiting).

Andra was granted its petition to take depositions to learn the identity of two Glassdoor users. A defamation suit may be pending.

Franchises: Fight Fair, but Fight Back

As noted in a previous blog addressing a franchisor’s negative publicity, it’s tough to fight a bad review. First Amendment rights are fiercely protected in the U.S., and defamation is hard to prove.

However, it’s not impossible. And though some may want to force websites to reveal the identities of anonymous reviewers, this is not the most financially feasible option. Stay tuned, we’ll tackle other relevant laws concerning internet reviews as well as other options available for franchises fighting back, in our next blog.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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