Yelp Fights Back Against Carpet Cleaning Service That Sued Anonymous Critics For Defamation

from the good-for-yelp dept

We've seen plenty of lawsuits involving people upset about Yelp reviews, but here's a fairly extreme case. Apparently, a DC-area carpet cleaning service named Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, which is somewhat infamous in the area for its "pervasive advertising" and direct mail coupons promising a $99 cleaning special, does not have the greatest reputation on Yelp. The key issue: apparently that $99 deal is often not honored. Also, there are multiple reviews of people getting a quote, dropping off a carpet, and then being told later if they want the carpet back they have to pay much more -- with various excuses being offered as to why they're charging more than the quote.

Hadeed then decided to sue seven anonymous reviewers for defamation. Here's the oddity: Hadeed does not appear to be suing them over the contents of the bad review. In fact, the company doesn't seem to dispute the various complaints about its pricing practices. Rather, it argues that it could not match these seven reviewers to actual customers within its database, and therefore, the reviewers are defaming them by misrepresenting that they were ever Hadeed customers. Hadeed appears to suggest that they reviews were really written by a competitor.

As we've discussed, many courts have adopted the so-called Dendrite rules for identifying anonymous speakers. The rules require giving the anonymous users a chance to respond and (more importantly) require the plaintiff to present enough evidence to prove there's an actual case. However, the court in Virginia chose to not apply any such rules, but rather allowed a subpoena to Yelp ordering it to identify the posters. Yelp has refused, and the court ordered compliance, which Yelp again refused, leading to the court saying Yelp was in contempt.

Public Citizen has now filed a brief on behalf of Yelp with the appeals court, arguing both that the Virginia court had no jurisdiction over Yelp, a California company, and that Yelp was correct to ignore the order since the First Amendment (which protects anonymous speech) requires much more proof before an anonymous speaker can be revealed.
When pervasive advertisements from a local merchant feature prices that seem to be just too good to be true, they may, in fact, not be the price that the average consumer will pay. Dozens of consumers who have used pseudonyms to post about their experiences with appellee Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, Inc. (“Hadeed”) on the popular website www.yelp.com, maintained by appellant Yelp Inc. (“Yelp”), report that Hadeed routinely fails to honor the advertised discount prices. Hadeed’s responses to several consumers on Yelp suggest that it recognizes the problem; yet its complaint for defamation singles out the authors of seven reviews posted on Yelp that say the same thing as the other online detractors of Hadeed and its sister business, Hadeed Oriental Rug Cleaning. Based on that allegation, Hadeed invoked the court’s subpoena power to strip its pseudonymous critics of their First Amendment right to speak anonymously.

The main question on this appeal—an issue of first impression at the appellate level in Virginia—is whether the trial court applied the proper legal standard in overriding the anonymous speakers’ First Amendment rights. Courts elsewhere have recognized that, given the valuable role played by the First Amendment right to speak anonymously in encouraging ordinary people to express themselves fully, it is necessary to balance that right against a plaintiff’s right to seek redress for wrongful speech by adopting a standard requiring a plaintiff to do more than articulate a good faith belief that the speech “maybe tortious.” Before stripping the defendant of a First Amendment right, these courts take an early look at the merits of the plaintiff’s claim to determine whether a valid claim has been alleged and whether there is a prima facie evidentiary basis for that claim. In this appeal, Yelp urges Virginia to adopt the same approach, and to remand this case to give Hadeed an opportunity to pursue its subpoena by meeting the proper standard.
In the meantime, though, we have yet another case of a company suing over Yelp reviews -- which just makes me wonder how they ever expect to get more customers. Any company that sues over online reviews someone makes is clearly a company not worth doing business with, since they might, potentially, sue you over any bad review you write online about them.




Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, May 10th, 2013 @ 4:27pm

    Gosh, an actual tough one!

    First, Mike doesn't highlight that plaintiff is a corporation and -- presumably -- the commenters are persons. But that's important: corporations don't suffer except "economically", so in my view have MUCH less right to demand the names of persons wishing anonymity.

    2nd is the interesting tangles for Yelp, which has now inserted itself as at least advocate for the (presumed) persons, thereby, in my view, losing the safe harbor protections. It's such a dicey position that Yelp must be either digging in on a basic principle they need for their biz, OR are somehow more involved.

    It's a tangle that could be kept together only IF Yelp proved to judge that commenters are indeed real persons without revealing names to Hadeed -- and of course if that can't be proved, may expose Yelp to serious liability for both contempt and fabrication!

    I won't venture a guess at this point. I certainly don't like anonymity of persons stripped in favor of a mere fictional economic entity, BUT that does have a limit, AND there may not be any real comments. May be some procedure for such in-chamber showing without revealing to plaintiff, which Law Student Mike should know.

    Bottom line for me is that IF the TRUTH of the comments isn't contested, then there's NO standing to get the names, it's JUST for intimidation.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 10th, 2013 @ 4:45pm

    I'm sure everything written about them in those yelp reviews is spot on.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Brendy, May 10th, 2013 @ 5:25pm

    Re:

    I see what you did there...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    identicon
    Brendy, May 10th, 2013 @ 5:48pm

    Let me try...

    When will these companies learn that they don't live in a vacuum? They really need to clean up their reputation by honoring their advertised prices.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    identicon
    pip, May 10th, 2013 @ 6:41pm

    Re: Gosh, an actual tough one!

    Honestly do you have any life to live?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 10th, 2013 @ 7:02pm

    Mr Hameed get on your carpet and ride

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 10th, 2013 @ 7:27pm

    Re:

    haha! Casual racism, it's so funny!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    icon
    Mike Brown (profile), May 10th, 2013 @ 8:52pm

    Just curious...

    Yelp has currently filtered out 84 of Hadeed's 91 reviews. Another 6 were totally removed. Most of those 6 are outside Hadeed's area, so I can imagine they were totally inappropriate/spam/etc. But I wonder why 84 reviews were filtered out, leaving only 7? That seems suspicious, as if Yelp is trying to tell us there's been a lot of shenanigans.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, May 10th, 2013 @ 9:32pm

    pffftt

    I troll the fuck out of those places on Yelp VIA TOR, enjoy tracking me down.

    They deserve it for providing a bad service then trying to cover it up in court.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 11th, 2013 @ 4:05am

    Re: Gosh, an actual tough one!

    "Bottom line for me is that IF the TRUTH of the comments isn't contested, then there's NO standing to get the names, it's JUST for intimidation."

    I think this is the first time ootb has said something that I can agree with.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    icon
    davebarnes (profile), May 11th, 2013 @ 7:45am

    Yelp filtering

    Yelp filtering is automatic. That is, done by computer and not humans.

    You will notice that most of the filtered reviews are 101s. One star, zero friends and one review.
    Yelp wants people who write lots of reviews.
    Usually, all the 101s and 501s will wind up in the filter bucket.

    A large number of reviews in the filter bucket always means one of three situations:
    1. Lots of pissed off customers. Hadeed Carpet.
    2. Lots of fake positive reviews. http://www.yelp.com/biz/cherry-creek-modern-dentistry-glendale-2
    3. Infrequently - lots of negative reviews from non-customers about a stance taken by the business. For example, a bakery that won't serve homosexuals. http://www.yelp.com/biz/masterpiece-cakeshop-lakewood only shows 43 filtered, but at one time there were over 300.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 11th, 2013 @ 4:43pm

    typo

    In the Public Citizen quote, 2nd paragraph: 'a good faith belief that the speech “maybe tortious.”' should be "may be tortious."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    identicon
    Wolfy, May 12th, 2013 @ 11:10am

    Another typo

    Second paragraph, last sentence: "they" looks like it should be "the".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    Yelp is Fake, May 16th, 2013 @ 9:38am

    You want anonymous, crowd-sourced truth? Search: Yelp+Scam, Yelp+Fraud, Yelp+Extortion.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 21st, 2013 @ 12:55pm

    Too bad the Yelp terms of service block 101's suing

    because I'm guessing if one had an actual bad review one could back up with documentation it might be a hoot to sue yelp! for deleting the 'truth'.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    identicon
    www.azcarpetandtilecleaning.com, Jun 27th, 2013 @ 9:11am

    My struggle in cleaning is over with these. Thanks!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Ozzy Ventura, Jun 28th, 2013 @ 3:02pm

    I will sue Yelp too

    I will sue Yelp too, because Yelp is allowing people to post false reviews = Yelp DOES NOT KNOW the details of the business transactions. Yelp is affecting legitimate businesses and helping false reviewers.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Jerry woolfolk, Jul 2nd, 2013 @ 2:17pm

    Re: Yelp filtering

    Yelp has filtered all 4 of my reviews. All are true and honest reviews that I earned the good old fashioned way! (hard work for the client with superior results)I am a carpet cleaner in Colorado Springs and I perform phenomenal work at great prices. I deliver quality and my clients write unbiased, unsolicited reviews and yet they are still filtered out. I have not recieved any bad reviews yet, but wonder if those will remain posted online. I don't get it. All positive reviews have been filtered. I am a 24 year retired army veteran working in my 2nd career, I conduct all my business with ethics beyond reproach and they still filter my reviews. (it's embarrassing for me)
    I recieved several, and I mean several emails from Yelp to pay for advertising, but declined due to advice I recieved from my SEO company. They didn't knock Yelp, but rather advised me to put more emphasis and resources on Google+ (the internet leader). I can't help but wonder if this has any weight in the deletions.
    I have emailed yelp with my concerns, but they do not respond as posted on their site. Very, very frustrating. I am not saying that this other carpet cleaner is ethical, or unethical, I am saying I feel as though my company has not recieved a fair shake and I don't know why!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    M. Williamson, Jul 30th, 2013 @ 8:08am

    Yelp gets sued for extortion and loses, judge agrees yelp is scum.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, a bankruptcy lawyer took Yelp to small claims court in San Diego and won a judgement of $2700.

    ….the judge describing Yelp’s advertising contract as “the modern-day version of the mafia going to stores and saying, “You wanna not be bothered?”

    The case will be taken to a higher court on appeal.

    The McMillan Law Group, which brought the claim against Yelp, agreed to an advertising deal with the site after it had become “a good source of new clients for us,” said attorney Julian McMillan, representing his firm in the court. The deal involved the firm paying Yelp $540 per month in return for 1,200 ad impressions per month on the site. An impression is counted each time an ad is displayed to a user.

    Mr. McMillan claimed Yelp did not deliver the 1,200 monthly impressions, leading to his firm cancelling the contract and asking for its money back. The site’s representative in the court, Bradley Bohensky, said the claim was based on a misunderstanding of how such impressions are measured, and that Yelp in fact “over delivered” on the ad impressions promised.

    Several thoughts:
    -The Wall Street Journal, and to a lesser extent the lawyer making the claim, rehashed the Yelp conspiracy theory of pay to play but this case seems to revolve around the one-sided and coercive nature of Yelp’s contract and whether impressions were properly delivered.
    -Rocky Agrawal has pointed out the extremely high pricing of Yelp’s advertising and the often irrelevant impressions that they provide. This would seem to me provide another avenue for a small claims court action.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    laura l turcanu, Aug 11th, 2013 @ 9:04am

    www.expertreviews.us

    A very good and interesting post that i have come across, thanks for sharing the post.
    Really appreciable.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    UP Marketing, Aug 20th, 2013 @ 5:32pm

    Local seo consultant for your small business

    Hello techdirt, i love your post because it helps me a lot.. can you build my website www.upmarketing.org ? i'm willing to pay for it

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    identicon
    Tidymax, Aug 26th, 2013 @ 3:31am

    Very nice to read more about your cleaning service in the blog post. Thanks for sharing.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    William, Sep 9th, 2013 @ 12:29pm

    I would be very interested

    for Yelp to shed some light on how their algo works...the 101 theory proposed above simply is not true (I have seen one-star reviews published by those with no Yelp friends or other reviews written while more favorable reviews written by those who have posted past reviews and have numerous yelp friends are "filtered"). My intention is not to insinuate favorable treatment towards those who advertise with Yelp, but there seems to be no logical or mathematical rhyme or reason as to which reviews get posted and which are filtered. I am a small business owner and network regularly with many other business owners in my community who have experienced this firsthand.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    identicon
    Cowherd, Oct 10th, 2013 @ 7:12am

    You want anonymous, crowd-sourced truth? Search: Yelp+Scam, Yelp+Fraud, Yelp+Extortion.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    icon
    PockaDolaMelbourne@gmail.com (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 4:13pm

    $99 deal is often not honored

    The $99 deal which is often not honored explains why they are attracting bad reviews. Obviously, their clients and competitors aren't happy with them.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  

    Reliable Commercial cleaning services in Australia provided by CRH

    What should we do to clean our carpet without any harm? Which cleaning product is beneficial in carpet cleaning?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
    identicon
    Jason Hanleybrown, Dec 4th, 2013 @ 2:00pm

    Suing Yelp

    The Yelp filter is NOT setup to filter fake reviews. It is a reward system for people who post a lot.

    Our company does a lot of installations and we encourage customers to post and since most people are not power Yelpers, they end up being "101"s.

    Increasingly, we are seeing "Power Yelpers" use Yelp to renegotiate, often in abusive ways. Once per month we get a Yelper call in and say "You gave great service and I know I agreed to pay $x BUT I have 40 reviews on Yelp...so, I would like $300 back."

    All of our screened reviews (we have over 1,000 at this point) are real customers. We also have A ratings with BBB in multiple states and A ratings on Angie's List. We also survey all of our customers and we regularly survey 9 out of 10 points.

    I believe the Yelp filter should make them liable. It may be "automatic" but it has no relationship to review accuracy. If anything, it is a reward system for people who Yelp a lot. In this sense, Yelp is in fact manipulating its reviews and I would love to see someone sue Yelp on this basis.

    Further, if you try to communicate with them, they are evasive and extremely aggressive about trying to get you to advertise.

    We are at the point of not wanting active Yelpers as customers. On the other hand, we go 10 extra miles for an Angie's List customer. And, if they are not happy we always address it. But, it's not anonymous (as a business user, you can see the name and address of users) and if someone is unhappy, we want to fix it.

    I think there is a basis to sue Yelp but not only that, I think they deserve to lose.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    identicon
    Dave, Jan 2nd, 2014 @ 3:18pm

    Carpet cleaning los angeles

    Thank you for sharing. Yelp should go down soon

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    identicon
    World Business, Jan 7th, 2014 @ 12:29am

    World Business

    You have good described about carpet cleaning. I think, many people would get information about carpet cleaning services from your informative post.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    identicon
    Cleaning Service, Mar 3rd, 2014 @ 11:09pm

    Cleaning Service

    Informative posting! I think this posting would be effective for all. Thank you for sharing with us. invites you to read Informative posting! I think this posting would be effective for all. Thank you for sharing with us. invites you to read

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    identicon
    cleaning Wiz, Mar 17th, 2014 @ 11:47am

    Should be honest all

    All should have to be honest. If anyone give false review, then yelp what will be done? how much they verify? Why a business holder hire a man for review?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This