Yelp not liable for allegedly defamatory customer reviews

In a recent case having an outcome that should surprise no one, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed a lower court’s decision that held Yelp immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. 230 – the “CDA”) over customer reviews that were allegedly defamatory.

Plaintiff sued Yelp for violations under RICO and the Washington Consumer Protection Act, as well as libel under Washington law. Yelp moved to dismiss for failure to state to claim upon which relief may be granted. The lower court found that plaintiff had failed to allege any facts that plausibly suggested Yelp was responsible for the content, and therefore dismissed the case. Plaintiffs sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed.

The appellate court observed that plaintiff’s complaint, which he filed pro se, “pushed the envelope” of creative pleading. The court observed that plaintiff cryptically – “to the point of opacity” – alleged that Yelp was the one that created and developed the offending content. The court declined to open the door to such “artful skirting” of the Communications Decency Act’s safe harbor provision.

The key question before the court was whether the alleged defamatory reviews were provided by Yelp or by another information content provider. CDA immunity does not extend to situations where the web site itself is responsible for the creation or development of the offending content. The immunity protects providers or users of interactive computer services when the claims being made against them seek to treat them as a publisher or speaker of the information provided by another information content provider.

In this case, the court found that a careful reading of plaintiff’s complaint revealed that he never specifically alleged that Yelp created the content of the allegedly defamatory posts. Rather, plaintiff pled that Yelp adopted them from another website and transformed them into its own stylized promotions. The court found that these “threadbare” allegations of Yelp’s fabrication of allegedly defamatory statements were implausible on their face and were insufficient to avoid immunity under the Communications Decency Act. The court was careful to note that CDA immunity does not extend to content created or developed by an interactive computer service. “But the immunity in the CDA is broad enough to require plaintiffs alleging such a theory to state the facts plausibly suggesting the defendant fabricated content under a third party’s identity.”

The plaintiff had alleged in part that Yelp’s rating system and its use by the author of the allegedly defamatory content resulted in the creation or development of information by Yelp. The court rejected this argument, finding that the rating system did “absolutely nothing to enhance the defamatory sting of the message beyond the words offered by the user.” The court further observed that the star rating system was best characterized as a neutral tool operating on voluntary inputs that did not amount to content development or creation.

Finally, the court addressed plaintiff’s cryptic allegations that Yelp should be held liable for republishing the alleged defamatory content as advertisements or promotions on Google. A footnote in the opinion states that plaintiff was not clear whether the alleged republication was anything more than the passive indexing of Yelp reviews by the Google crawler. The decision’s final outcome, however, does not appear to depend on whether Google indexed that content as Yelp passively stood by or whether Yelp affirmatively directed the content to Google. “Nothing in the text of the CDA indicates that immunity turns on how many times an interactive computer service publishes information provided by another information content provider.” In the same way that Yelp would not be liable for posting user generated content on its web site, it would not be liable for disseminating the same content in essentially the same format to a search engine. “Simply put, proliferation and dissemination of content does not equal creation or development of content.”

Kimzey v. Yelp! Inc., — F.3d —, 2016 WL 4729492 (9th Cir. September 12, 2016)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Lawsuit against Yelp over how it marketed its review filters can move forward

Plaintiff restaurant owner sued Yelp under California unfair competition law, claiming that certain statements Yelp made about the filters it uses to ascertain the unreliability or bias of user reviews were misleading and untrue. For example, plaintiff alleged that Yelp advertised that its filtering process “takes the reviews that are the most trustworthy and from the most established sources and displays them on the business page.” But, according to plaintiff, the filter did not give consumers the most trusted reviews, excluded legitimate reviews, and included reviews that were demonstrably false and biased.

Yelp filed an Anti-SLAPP motion to strike plaintiff’s complaint under California Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, arguing that the complaint sought to interfere with Yelp’s free speech rights, and targeted speech that appeared in a public forum and was a matter of public interest. The trial court granted the motion, and plaintiff sought review with the Court of Appeal of California. On appeal, the court reversed.

It held that a motion to strike under the mechanism of California’s Anti-SLAPP statute was unavailable under section 425.17 (c), which prohibits Anti-SLAPP motions against “any cause of action brought against a person primarily engaged in the business of selling or leasing goods or services,” where certain other conditions are met, including the statement being made for purposes of promoting the speaker’s goods or services.

The appellate court disagreed with the lower court which found that Yelp’s statements about its filters were mere “puffery”. Instead, the court held that these actions disqualified the Anti-SLAPP motion under the very language of the statute pertaining to commercial speech.

Demetriades v. Yelp, Inc., 2014 WL 3661491 (Cal. Ct. App. July 24, 2014)

Evan Brown is an attorney in Chicago advising clients on matters dealing with technology, the internet and new media.

Court considers Yelp posting as evidence of potential consumer confusion in trademark case

Posting by confused consumer was not hearsay.

You Fit, Inc. v. Pleasanton Fitness, LLC, 2013 WL 521784 (M.D.Fla. February 11, 2013)

In a trademark case between competing health clubs, the court considered a Yelp posting in entering a preliminary injunction, finding that while the anonymous posts were not conclusive evidence of actual confusion, they were indicative of potential consumer confusion.

The dispute centered over the use of “You Fit” and “Fit U” for health clubs. A Yelp user posted the following:

I am soo [sic] confused. I was a member at Youfit in [Arizona] and when I moved back to [California] I saw this place by my house and thought great my gym is here! When I went into the gym, I realized it was called Fit U. They use the same basic color scheme on their sign and the motto seemed the same. When I asked the girl at the desk, … [she] said her owner created this brand. I said what are you [ sic ] rates? Seemed very similar to me as when I was a member at Youfit. Very confusing and a big let down.

The court rejected defendant’s hearsay argument. It noted that affidavits and hearsay materials which would not be admissible evidence for a permanent injunction may be considered if the evidence is appropriate given the character and objectives of the injunctive proceeding. With no analysis as to why, the court found the Yelp posting appropriate to consider at this stage of the case.

Moreover, the court observed in a footnote that the Yelp post was not hearsay to begin with. It was not being offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted, but to demonstrate the consumer’s confusion — a then-existing mental state of the declarant, which is an exception to the hearsay rule. This is an interesting finding. The hearsay and non-hearsay uses of the post both turn on the same content, particularly the statement “I am soo [sic] confused.” That statement is the matter asserted (and in such capacity, excludable hearsay). And it is also the mindset of the declarant (and in such capacity, subject to an exception to the hearsay rule).

The court’s opinion does not address what one might see as the real problem with the Yelp evidence — its authenticity. Perhaps the parties did not bring that up. But one does not have to venture far in imagination to see how a crafty plaintiff could generate, or direct the generation, of self-serving social media content that would be helpful as evidence in a litigated matter.

See also: Customer reviews on social media provide important evidence in trademark dispute

Yelp successful in defamation and deceptive acts and practices case

Reit v. Yelp, Inc., — N.Y.S.2d —, 2010 WL 3490167 (September 2, 2010)

Section 230 of Communications Decency Act shielded site as interactive computer service; assertions regarding manipulation of reviews was not consumer oriented and therefore not actionable.

As I am sure you know, Yelp! is an interactive website designed to allow the general public to write, post, and view reviews about businesses, including professional ones, as well as restaurants and other establishments.

Lots of people and businesses that are the subject of negative reviews on sites like this get riled up and often end up filing lawsuits. Suits against website operators in cases like this are almost always unsuccessful. The case of Reit v. Yelp from a New York state court was no exception.

Plaintiff dentist sued Yelp and an unknown reviewer for defamation. He also sued Yelp under New York state law for “deceptive acts and practices”. Yelp moved to dismiss both claims. The court granted the motion.

Defamation claim – protection under Section 230

Interactive computer service providers are immunized from liability (i.e., they cannot be held responsible) for content that is provided by third parties. So long as the website is not an “information content provider” itself, any claim made against the website will be preempted by the Communications Decency Act, at 47 U.S.C. 230.

In this case, plaintiff claimed that Yelp selectively removed positive reviews of his dentistry practice after he contacted Yelp to complain about a negative reivew. He argued that this action made Yelp an information content provider (doing more than “simply selecting material for publication”) and therefore outside the scope of Section 230’s immunity. The court rejected this argument.

It likened the case to an earlier New York decision called Shiamili v. Real Estate Group of New York. In that case, like this one, an allegation that a website operator may keep and promote bad content did not raise an inference that it becomes an information content provider. The postings do not cease to be data provided by a third party merely because the construct and operation of the website might have some influence on the content of the postings.

So the court dismissed the defamation claim on grounds of Section 230 immunity.

Alleged deceptive acts and practices were not consumer oriented

The other claim against Yelp — for deceptive acts and practices — was intriguing, though the court did not let it stand. Plaintiff alleged that Yelp’s Business Owner’s Guide says that once a business signs up for advertsing with Yelp, an “entirely automated” system screens out reviews that are written by less established users.

The problem with this, plaintiff claimed, was that the process was not automated with the help of algorithms, but was done by humans at Yelp. That divergence between what the Business Owner’s Guide said and Yelps actual practices, plaintiff claimed, was consumer-oriented conduct that was materially misleading, in violation of New York’s General Business Law Section 349(a).

This claim failed, however, because the court found that the statements made by Yelp in the Business Owner’s Guide were not consumer-oriented, but were addressed to business owners like plaintiff. Without being a consumer-oriented statement, it did not violate the statute.

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