A New York Supreme Court judge ruled that federal law immunizes Yelp from liability for comments posted on its website by third party users. -db
Online Media Daily
September 10 2010
By Wendy Davis
A judge in Manhattan has dismissed a lawsuit against Yelp by a dentist who alleges that he was defamed by a bad review on the site.
New York Supreme Court Judge Jane Solomon ruled that the federal Communications Decency Act immunizes Yelp from liability for comments left by users. Solomon also rejected a request by the dentist, Glenn Reit, for an order requiring Yelp to remove the review.
“Congress granted interactive computer services immunity from liability for publishing false or defamatory material so long as the information was provided by another party,” Solomon wrote in a decision made public this week.
Reit is considering whether to file an appeal, according to his lawyer, Richard Raysman.
The case stemmed from post by an anonymous user, “Michael S,” who allegedly criticized Reit’s practice, saying “the equipment is old and dirty” and that the office was “small” and “dark.” Michael S. also allegedly complained about his experience, writing: “I allowed the barely competent xray tech to snap a couple of painful xrays.”
Reit says in his lawsuit that Michael S’s statements were false. The dentist also alleges that when he complained to Yelp, the company responded by removing 10 positive reviews that had been left on the site about him and leaving only Michael S’s critique.
In March, Reit sued Yelp for defamation and sought an order requiring the site to take down the post. “Online reviews are so ubiquitous that no marketing strategy Dr. Reit could follow would repair the damage to his professional reputation and practice,” he asserted in his complaint.
Reit also alleged that Yelp engaged in deceptive business practices by removing the good reviews. Reit’s complaint said that Yelp deleted positive posts as part of a strategy to persuade business owners to purchase advertising. But Reit didn’t argue that anyone from Yelp specifically asked him to advertise in exchange for either highlighting or burying reviews.
“He provides statements from other business owners who claim to have been manipulated as he described, and references class-action lawsuits against Yelp of which he is not a member,” Solomon wrote. “Notably, he does not allege that he was a victim of the conduct he complains about.”
Raysman says his client alleges that Yelp’s business model was meant to coerce him.
Yelp currently is facing a class-action lawsuit in California by business owners who allege that the site “extorts” companies by offering to hide bad reviews and promote positive ones in exchange for ad buys.
In April, Yelp changed its policies to no longer allow business owners to pay to have a favorite review highlighted at the top of its page. Yelp also said it would allow people to see some reviews it previously filtered out of the listings, including reviews that the site’s filters flagged as having been authored by business owners.
Reit also sued Michael S for defamation. That action is still pending. Raysman says that Reit plans to subpoena Yelp for information to identify Michael S, such as the email address or IP address connected with his post.
A Yelp spokesperson said the company was “gratified” that the court “recognized Congress’ intent to protect commercial free speech online under the Communications Decency Act, and granted Yelp’s motion to dismiss all charges.”
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